The Future for Wild Wolves in the Alps

They might be a strictly protected species but the wild wolves of France often receive bad press from farmers. So how misrepresented is the Big Bad Wolf?

Let's face it, wolves haven't had great PR in the past, mostly portrayed as 'big' and 'bad' be it from Brothers Grimm or Disney. Their popularity among the human race in France hit its lowest some 200 years ago. In the 18th century there were 20,000 wolves in France, by the 1930s they'd been hunted to extinction.

If you were wavering in the debate about whether wild wolves should exist in the forests of France, endangering farmers' livestock and potentially tourists' nerves on summer walks, then watch Vicky and Her Mystery (Mystère) on Netflix.

This endearing film features an eight year old French girl who is so traumatised by her mother's death that she refuses to speak but, when moving to a mountain village with her father, she is given a puppy and, thus she finds her voice and happiness again. But the puppy, Mystere, not only turns out to be her best friend - but, yep, also a wolf.

And inevitably what follows, of course, is the conflict with local farmers who are losing sheep because of a lone wolf and, therefore, determined to hunt down the culprit. Well, you see where this is going. It's wild wolves versus French farmers - and we all know that French hunters can be more trigger happy than 30s mafia gangsters.

HIGH INTELLIGENCE

Mystere is not only based on a true story and, therefore, fairly believable but it also features real wolves in the starring roles of Mystère and the pack, rather than using wolf-looking dog substitutes or CGI, proving their high intelligence in performing on command and with no aggression in front of the camera.

In fact, most studies show that wolves have at least a 17 percent larger brain than the domestic dog and a high degree of adaptability to varying conditions. In studies, wolves readily take learning onboard and remember for long periods of time. 

WOLF CULTURE

You couldn't ask for better PR for the wolf world than Mystere. Not since Mother Wolf adopted Simba has a film shown wolves in such a sympathetic light. 

Let's face it, wolves haven't had great PR in the past, mostly portrayed as 'big' and 'bad' be it from Brothers Grimm or Disney. But wolves are not only highly intelligent but, also, they are very social and caring creatures.

According to Living With Wolves: "They form friendships and nurture their own sick and injured. Pack structure enables communication, the education of the young and the transfer of knowledge across generations. Wolves and other highly social animals have and pass on what can be best described as culture. A family group can persevere for several generations, even decades, carrying knowledge and information through the years, from generation to generation."

HUNTED TO EXTINCTION

Their popularity among the human race in France hit its lowest some 200 years ago. In the 18th century there were 20,000 wolves in France, by the 1930s they'd been hunted to extinction.

But surprising not only the world of wildlife studies but, also, the first few people who spotted them in the wild, wolves returned naturally to the Southern Alps during the mid-90s, coming across the border from the Abruzzes mountains of Italy.

PROTECTION FOR WOLVES

There were less than 40 in 1995, but now the wolf population is estimated to be over 1000 in France. Their numbers have increased steadily under the protection of the 1979 Berne Convention.

But the fact that the wolf is a strictly protected species is not welcomed by those French farmers whose flocks of sheep are forever in danger of wolf attacks if they are grazed near the forests. And so they have demanded not only recompense for loss of livestock but, also, the right to protect their livelihoods.

PROTECTION FOR SHEEP

According to Le Monde, 30th September, 2022, "For the first time, hunting groups in the Lozère department (south) will be able to carry out preventive shooting to eliminate a wolf. The decision was announced by Prefect Philippe Castanet on 26th September, after a demonstration of livestock breeders ended in unrest on Monday in the town of Mende. The measure goes beyond defensive shooting, which farmers in the region are already authorised to do if their herds are attacked. It is the result of the breeders' complaints of being fed up and not getting enough support in the face of the growing population of wolves in the department, as is also the case in some 150 areas in France, mostly in the Southeast and in the Alps.

"The prefecture reported that 180 livestock animals had allegedly been killed by wolves since the beginning of the year, out of the more than 180,000 heads in the department (based on figures published in 2018). The numbers are clearly on the rise, since breeders received compensation for 174 animals killed in 2021 in the department, for 101 in 2020 and for 70 in 2019."

WOLF PLANS

This was the beginning of the 'wolf plans' to create a balance between protecting wolves and saving livestock. The last five-year plan (2018-2023) provided for the culling of 10 percent of the wolf population each year, in accordance with scientific recommendations.

But in October, 2020 there was an order issued by the ministers of environmental transition and agriculture, raising that threshold to 19 percent. In 2022, this represented 174 wolves.

FLOCK WATCH

Is there a potential compromise? For sure, farmers can use electric fences for defence of their flocks but this is adding to their costs to buy and maintain them - and they are not necessarily wolf-proof. 

The alternative is a canine defence in the form of a Patou, a giant white dog that is brought up with the sheep, lives with them in the pastures and will protect the flock with its life. 

The only problem, here, is the fact that a Patou can be quite intimidating for tourists and, in fact, they have attacked a few, mistaking them for danger to their flocks. Check out our brief encounters with these giant mountain dogs, here.

Wolves, however, are timid when it comes to humans and will avoid coming anywhere near. The Patou, therefore, is arguably more of a danger to man than wolves.

THE WOLVES OF SERRE CHEVALIER

Richard Lade, a backcountry skier, hiker and mountaineer living in Serre Chevalier, has studied and taken video footage of one pack, whose habitat is in the forest above the resort:

"The alpha female moves the den every year and the pack range six to 12 wolves. They hunt at night on deer, normally the young or the old. There is plenty of food as the winters are so mild and wolf numbers are increasing. They live under rocks or in natural caves. They hunt at regular times leaving the den as early as five in the evening, when it's dark and getting back before dawn. They cover huge distances when hunting.

"In the summer they move higher up the mountain to hunt and are a menace to shepherds. Man is their only predator in the Alps. No, they are not a danger unless the den is threatened. They can attack stray dogs as they hate dogs. I agree with the shooting of wolves as their numbers are increasing year on year and if a wolf kills a sheep it won't stop at one."

Around Serre Chevalier, where STYLE ALTITUDE is based, there have been several sightings of wolves - and, memorably, of a wolf seen at night prowling in the village. It was photographed and featured in the press where it was immediately recognised as a local's very friendly pet Husky.

AND FINALLY

Of course, Mystere turns out to be a cautionary tale about adopting a wolf and, spoiler alert, ends up being set free back into the wild for everyone's sakes, wolf and farmers'.

But there are real life stories where wolves have been brought up and domesticated, such as the cub, Kira, taken from an animal shelter in Russia when she was 28 weeks old by Alida, below.  Check out her story here.

living with wolves