OPINION: 24 years after I first reported on wolves in France, they are at my door in Normandy

As a newly-arrived reporter in France in the 1990s, John Lichfield wrote about the presence of wolves in the French Alps. Twenty four years later, they have arrived in his home region of Normandy.

OPINION: 24 years after I first reported on wolves in France, they are at my door in Normandy
Photo: Raymond Roig/AFP

One of my first pieces of reportage when I came to France in 1997 was about wolves. They had crossed the frontier from Italy in 1992-3. They were spreading rapidly throughout the French Alps.

Twenty-four years later, Canis lupus is at my door – literally. A grey wolf was seen a couple of weeks ago near Domfront in the Orne département in lower Normandy. I live 50 kilometres north of there in the Calvados hills. That is scarcely more than a day’s hike for a lone wolf looking for a mate or a snack.

Who is afraid of the big bad wolf? Not me. Not really. I find the prospect of living in wolf-country rather exciting. We have plenty of mammal-life in my part of Calvados – wild-boar, fallow-deer, badgers, otters, foxes, hares, hedgehogs. But wolves! That promotes us to a whole new category of wild and romantic.

MAP: Where in France do wolves live?

Actually it doesn’t. In the last three decades wolves have spread into, or through, all but a dozen of the 90-odd départements of metropolitan France. They have crossed rivers, motorways and TGV lines. They have circled around Paris. They have colonised the Alps, the Jura, the Vosges and Massif Central, the Ardennes, parts of Languédoc and two départements in Brittany.

Their numbers are not huge – 624 adults in 106 packs according to the French government’s biodiversity agency. But the population is increasing by 7 to 9 percent annually – despite the deaths of at least 200 French wolves each year in official culls, illegal hunts and road and rail accidents.

Calvados is, in fact, one of the last départements to have resisted the re-wolfing of France. They will be here soon. The countryside around me is better suited to modern wolves than other places that they have inspected, passed through or colonised in the last quarter century.

A shepherd wearing a T-shirt reading “No to wolves” in Prevencheres, southern France. Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

We have hills. We have forests. And our farmers have in recent years gone over in a modest way from dairy cattle to sheep.

Wolves and sheep do not go together well. There were 3,700 wolf reported attacks on flocks of sheep in France last year – roughly 30 attacks for each wolf pack. Some of these incidents probably involved wild dogs rather than wolves – but not many.

Almost all the attacks were concentrated in the Auvergne and the Alps, which is where most of the French wolves still live but also most of the French sheep.

The wolf is a protected species under the Berne convention and European law. It can no longer be hunted or poisoned – as it was to extinction in France in the early 20th century (and in Britain in the 18th century).

Farmers are only allowed to shoot wolves if their sheep are actually under attack. The government – which now has a wolf monitoring agency – organises small, official culls each year.

There are also large subsidies from Paris for the building of electrified wolf-defences and the breeding and training of wolf dogs, mostly the deceptively cuddly-looking Patou breed.

A Patou dog guards a flock of sheep near Fanjeaux in southern France. Photo by ERIC CABANIS / AFP

Some French shepherds have reluctantly embraced this new world.  In mountain areas where sheep are protected in this way, wolf attacks have become rare. The number of wolf attacks nationally is stable, even though wolf numbers are rising.

Other farmers, especially in lowland areas, are still crying wolf. In 2013, I visite Bar-sur-Aube on the edge of the Champagne-growing country where wolves had appeared for the first time in more than a century.

Jean-Baptiste Schreiner, whose sheep had been attacked, told me: “No one expected ever to see wolves here again. In the mountains, or in the forests, maybe, but this is flatter country, farming country.”  

“There are things you can do to protect sheep. But do we really want a French countryside full of savage dogs and two-metre-high electric fences?”

Put that way, I’m not so sure that I welcome the advance of the wolf after all.

Wolves spread naturally. They rarely gather in large packs – usually consisting of 4 or 5 adults, rarely more than ten. Each year, the young adults, the previous year’s pups, leave the pack to seek mates and food elsewhere.

This phenomenon, known as “dispersion”, explains the confirmed presence of wolves in so many French départements in the last decade. They are mostly passing through, looking for prey and other wolves with which to breed.

Only when they reach the kind of country that they favour do they settle down into permanent packs. This country does not have to be mountains and forests. There are now wolf packs in low-lying Brittany and Picardy (but not yet in most of the French Pyrenees).

Pierre Athanaze, president of a French wildlife defence group, Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages (Aspas) says: “None of this should be surprising or scaring.

“The wolf is a lowland animal, an animal of the plains. In Italy, they live in the flatland around Florence, without causing any problem. The same is true in Spain.”

Maybe. I find myself unable to have a clear and fixed opinion on wolves. I believe their return is good and inevitable. I also understand why farmers – already beset by so many other problems – are terrified of them.

In any case, the advance of the wolf through France – 1,200 kilometres in less than 30 years – is almost complete. The Channel coast is only another 100 kilometres away – perhaps less. Wolves have also been spotted recently in the forests of the Bray region near Dieppe.

Resourceful and determined as they are, the wolves can go no further. They are unlikely to climb aboard rubber dinghies and set sail for Sussex or Hampshire.

Member comments

  1. “ They are unlikely to climb aboard rubber dinghies and set sail for Sussex or Hampshire.”

    The wolves have more sense, they are welcome in France, unlike…….

  2. It is fantastic that they are spreading through France. It is my hope that they reach my corner of Bretagne in my lifetime (and I am all too happy to acquire and train up a Patou to guard my sheep in anticipation 🙂

  3. 自5月时美国共和党参议员兰德•保罗(Rand Paul)在一次听证会上质疑美国国家过敏和传染病研究所所长安东尼•福奇(Anthony Fauci)参与资助了武汉病毒研究所一项使病毒更致命或更具传染性的研究,关于COVID-19病毒起源是否与国家阴谋有关的争议又起。身陷“邮件门”舆论风暴中心的福奇,俨然已经成为众矢之的。墙倒众人推,连“伪科学”之流的闫丽梦也敢对着福奇大放厥词,欲混成“推墙人”。

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Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.