Wolves that were hunted to extinction in parts of Europe are staging an amazing comeback
If a sudden movement hadn't caught my eye I might never have seen them nor felt that surge of adrenaline as the long-legged silhouettes detached themselves from the shadows and began moving swiftly and gracefully in the moonlight. Yes, it had to be. It was the moment I have dreamed of and yearned for since starting the Trail to Salamanca and attempting to follow loosely in the footprints of those iconic predators that were hunted to extinction in many parts of Europe, only to stage a surprising comeback in recent years.
Were my eyes playing tricks or was it a family of wolves on the move, the matriarch leading confidently? Confirmation came as a long haunting howl carried through the still night, to be answered by another, the signature call of the species stirring something primal within me from the ancient past. I felt the hairs rising on the back of my neck and recalled the same fearful exhilaration on another full moon night on another continent when I almost stopped breathing as I stared into the eyes of a magnificent black-maned lion at my tent flap, only a flimsy mosquito gauze separating us. Who was prey and who the predator?
Sheep are driven through the rural French town of Die to high summer pastures
That lion encounter was real but for the moment the fleeting wolf experience I've just described remains pure fiction as I walk and try to imagine how these iconic predators are migrating through vast areas of human habitation. They're defying the odds in a hostile world where so many people have been brought up on myths and legends that demonise this most beautiful creature. "Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf?" is an echo from my kindergarten days!
Not surprisingly I've passed through the Alps in recent weeks without a hint of their presence, which is to be expected when you consider that man's relentless quest to exterminate them must be imprinted in their DNA.
Pierre Commenville of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Geneva, tells me the last wolf was shot dead in France in the 1930s, with a small population now existing in the Alps. "But because they were absent so long, local coexistence behaviours have been lost and there are serious conflicts with human activities, and above all with extensive sheep breeding." Whereas the lynx, Europe's most reclusive large carnivore, is not seen as a competitor to humans and was reintroduced to the wilds of France in the 1970s, the controversial return of the wolves is part of a natural process that speaks volumes for their resourcefulness and overwhelming will to survive. Pierre says wolves that originated from Italy's Apennine region have been breeding with those from the Balkans, while others of Italian origin have been detected in the Pyrenees. "Thanks to this dynamic natural recovery, there is no human induced reintroduction of wolves in the region."
Shepherds like these generally have no great love of wolves
My best hopes for meeting them in the wild will be in the north-west of Spain and north of Portugal where the largest population exists, so I walk in hope with that tingling of wonder and excitement as I try to imagine how they achieve their incredible migrations, crossing great barriers like roads, highways, bridges and rivers, among them the Rhone. That they must survive seems obvious as they have as much right to the Earth as we do and it is biologically evident that the absence of a keystone species significantly impacts on the intricate workings of an entire ecosystem. It's going to be all about compromises and adjustments between humans and other predators and what has happened in the US has intrigued me, especially with the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, which is widely believed to be the world's first national park.
Pivotal to the project has been the passion and perseverance of conservationist Renee Askins, author of Shadow Mountain: A Memoir of Wolves, a Woman and the Wild. "Even though we killed the wolf, every last one of them in the West, we never extinguished the wild – we only became more deeply alienated from it … the darkness and rage that drove us to torture and exterminate wolves in such hideous ways is part of the dark wildness present in each of our hearts, even today," she says. "Restoring wolves to the West was more than just implementation of a law or the fine-tuning of an ecosystem, it was our nation grappling with its complicated relationship with the wild … Bringing wolves back to Yellowstone was an act of raw faith, of abandon, of hope … it was an act of giving back something we had taken, not just from the land or our first national park but from our souls."
An annual sheep festival is a highlight on the tourism calendar in the town of Die
I'm thinking about her insights when I stroll into the normally tranquil Rhone-Alps city of Die to discover an incredible buzz as locals prepare for the annual herding of sheep through the medieval centre to the high summer pastures. Three lasses rather than one are manning the desk in the Tourism Office and wearing cheerful orange sheep-adorned T-shirts. Do I tell them I'm practising to be a wolf? It's a remarkable day of festivities culminating in a huge flock of sheep being herded through the streets between historic buildings with crowds of visitors lining the route and snapping away with cellphone cameras like paparazzi. Every bed and campsite has been taken by the avalanche of out-of-towners so I head on and am warmly welcomed at the La Cour de Crest guesthouse by owners Vincent Crousle and Myriam Tiberghien. Before I have a chance to explain that I'm a vegetarian a steaming pot is placed before me and you guessed it: it's lamb! I grapple with my conscience and decide not to offend my generous hosts. Besides I'm a wolf … meat passes between my lips for the first time in 13 years.