The Wolves of the French Alps

Absentmindedly scrolling through Instagram the other day, I saw a video taken from a distance of a blurry dog-like figure making its way up a steep snowy incline. It’s fluid and distinct way of moving identified it as one of the few wolves that have set up their home in the alpine regions of Europe.

Whilst viewing this video I was reminded of a tale I was told a few months ago when on holiday just outside of Morzine in the Portes du Soleil. A local friend told me of a drive home late one night when she spotted a stray dog in the middle of the road. Concerned for it’s wellbeing she went to get out of her car. Walking slowly towards the animal she stopped suddenly and realised that it wasn’t a dog at all, but a wolf. Staring at her intently for a couple of seconds the wolf silently slunk off the road and into the forest, disappearing into the night.

These tales and videos intrigue everyone, wolves are fascinating creatures and of all the animals, the one which evokes most a sense of exploration and ‘wilderness’. Because of this fascination, and a real interest from people whenever I relay the story above, or mention that there are several packs of wolves living across the Alps, I’ve decided to compile a short history of their presence in France, considering their habitat and diet, the controversy surrounding their introduction, and how you can potentially spot one in the wild.

History

Towards the end of the 18th Century there were still 10,000 – 20,000 wolves throughout france. They were widespread across the whole country until the 1930s, when they were purposefully hunted to extinction. What was once a familiar creature was no more, and their telltale howl ceased to exist throughout the mountains. Relatively recently, in the 1990s, wolves started to re-establish themselves, coming over the border from Italy, with their numbers increasing in recent years.

About the Wolf

As the wolf is built for running and long journeys, it is incredibly hard to keep track of the packs as they are constantly on the move for up to 10 hours every day, with their territory ranging up to a massive 6000km2. Being social animals they live in close knit family groups. In France the packs are small, ranging from two to six, and rarely more than eight. Young wolves leave the packs when they are between two – four years old, making it even harder to trace as these animals will be ranging by themselves.

The wolf has a diet that is perfectly suited to the alpine surroundings. Although they will eat insects and fruit, their main prey is hoofed animals such as deer, sheep, goats and wild boar, species that are in abundance throughout the Alps. Being incredibly adaptable to its environment the wolf will also feed on carrion, and some recent sightings have seen them rummaging through rubbish in ski resorts. To survive it needs a reliable food source all year round, with their hunting of wild animals helping to control populations. According to some experts the wolf population self-regulates, as young solo wolves perish when there is not enough prey.



Controversy

Their need to survive on a reliable source of prey has led to wolves killing domestic farm animals, mainly in the Spring and Autumn. The wolf is a protected species in France by the Bern Convention (a binding international legal instrument in the field of nature conservation), but the return of the wolf has caused a great deal of controversy due to some farmers losing huge amounts of livestock to the animals. In 2018, 3,674 wolf attacks led to the deaths of 12,500 sheep, with similar numbers being killed the year before.

Although the state authorises the culling of a certain number of wolves per year to keep the population in check, the killings can only be carried out under strict conditions. The government has come under strong pressure from farmers across the country to increase the number that can be culled. Under a “Wolf Plan” adopted by the government in 2018, the “viability threshold” of 500 wolves (the level at which the population is likely large enough to avoid becoming at risk of extinction over a 100-year period), wasn’t expected to be reached until 2023. The national French office for hunting and wildlife which monitors wolves, estimates that in 2019, there were around 530 adult wolves living throughout France, with the Agricultural Minister Didier Guillaume declaring that he now considered that the wolf was “no longer a species at risk of extinction.” Due to this rapid growth the government announced in March 2019 that 17-19 percent of the population would be culled each year, up from 10 to 12 percent, with this being increased even further in June of the same year. It is a tricky spot to be in for the French government, as they do not want to drive the wolf back to extinction, nor do they want to appear inconsiderate and unsupportive of farmers. In the French Alps many farmers use Patou (Pyrenean mountain dogs) to protect their flocks and herds from the wolves. In some cases this has led to a knock on effect, with occasional half-trained dogs causing issues to pets in the area.

Wolf Tracking

Despite this controversy and anger from the farming community there are numerous supporters of the wolves throughout France, prompting a rise in wolf tracking tourism in the Alps. Several companies, including Undiscovered Mountains, offer this experience, costing from €797 for a 4 day trek, staying in remote mountain refuges and eating in the wild. With Undiscovered Mountains you can track the wolves with a high mountain guide and tracker who has been following and studying the behaviour of the wolves for the past 20 years. Through his wealth of knowledge and access to a wide network of localised wolf enthusiasts you can get an incredible insight into the lives of these elusive animals. Following tracks and signs of wolf activity in the area you will also get to study and watch the behaviour of other alpine animals such as Marmottes and Chamois. The signs of wolf activity are to be recorded and sent to the official ‘wolf network’, which monitors the colonisation of wolves in the Alps. So as well as participating in an adventure the research undertaken will be put to good use. Although you are not guaranteed to see a wolf due to their secretive and elusive nature it is probably the closest chance you have to seeing one in the wild.

Sightings in Ski Resorts

Recent encounters and sightings by man are relatively rare and most people rely on a few eyewitness accounts when discussing the presence of the animal. Farmers are the people most likely to have come across them due to their livestock being targeted, with several farm owners in the Haute-Savoie experiencing attacks on their herds. Sightings and pictures of wolves near or in ski resorts have been reported, with locations from Courchevel and Meribel in the Three Valleys, Morzine in the Portes du Soleil and Chamonix being cited as potential territories. They have not been sighted in higher resorts with lesser tree cover such as the Espace Killy and Paradiski. Despite reports of numbers increasing and sightings becoming more regular the numbers are still relatively low when compared to neighbouring countries Spain and Italy, with around 2000 and 1000-1500 wolves estimated to be living there respectively. Although the wolf has an unfair reputation as a deceitful and dangerous animal, there have been no reports of wolves being aggressive towards or attacking humans in recent history, with the animals in France being unobtrusive and fearful of humans.

With the wolf population rising in France an interesting film featuring wolf supporter Jean-Michel Bertrand called Wolf Walk/Marche avec les loups was released this year with the synopsis reading: ‘Expressing one man’s endless fascination with a canine still wrongly viewed as a mere predator, Wolf Walk takes us on a journey through the remotest areas of the French Alps, a road movie through the wilderness.’ The trailer can be watched below.

If you have any comments or questions about this piece, or about the wolves in France just pop them in the comments or send me an email using my contact form. I’d be really interested to hear from people who have spotted them firsthand too, so again drop me a message if you have a story involving them.

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