Wolves have returned to France after being hunted to extinction around a century ago. Photographs: Sylvain Macchi
In a day to remember I have looked deep into the eyes of a wolf and heard the mournful signature call of the species, both experiences touching me profoundly in mysterious ways. Is it the call of the wild beckoning us to return to where we belong: to a time and place where we were one with wildness and inseparable from the natural world that nurtured and sustained us? Conservationist Renee Askins, author of Shadow Mountain: A Memoir of Wolves, a Woman and the Wild observes: "Something mysterious happens when we look into the eyes of an animal, whether it be a panther or a poodle – we see something familiar looking back. Ourselves?"
Strolling into the picturesque village of Florac, headquarters of France's celebrated Cevenne National Park, I spot a tiny image of a wolf in the window of the tourism office and immediately know this is not going to be an ordinary day. All my plans are overturned in an instant and I decide to abandon my day's walking and hitch-hike around 65km north to a wolf park called Les Loups du Gevaudan. Call it synchronicity if you like but three astonishingly seamless rides take me through breathtakingly beautiful rural countryside to within 11km of my destination, where I watch a kindly old couple drive past and then U-turn and announce: "We can only take you as far as our village where the wolves are."
Le Loups du Gevaudan director Joseph Matera
Le Loups du Gevaudan is a tribute to the late Gerard Menatory's love affair with the species Canis lupis and his determination to separate myth from reality. He believed that wolves are magnificent and seriously misunderstood creatures. I take the 45-minute guided tour in the company of a group of rowdy but enthusiastic children and seek out park director Joseph Matera who insists that there must be a place for every species in the wild, including the much-demonised wolf. Little Red Riding Hood and the Big, Bad Wolf is a familiar childrens' story but that's not the message that up to 80,000 visitors a year hear at the sanctuary, which couldn't be more controversially situated in the heart of cattle and sheep country. Joseph assures me there is no evidence of wolves ever attacking a grown man with these shy creatures fearing and avoiding humans.
Here there are around 100 wolves in enclosures that separate different sub species from Canada, Mongolia, Siberia and Poland, the most obvious differences being in colouring which enables them to blend in with their natural landscapes. One 15-hectare enclosure is closed to visitors and attempts to recreate a more natural environment.
Today there are perhaps 250 wolves roaming wild in France, which is encouraging when you consider that they were ruthlessly hunted to extinction, disappearing almost a century ago. I walk the couple of kilometres back to the village lost in thought and suddenly hear the sound I've been longing for, the wail lasting a few seconds and touching my soul. I put out my thumb and get a ride with Jean de Kermabo, who smiles when he hears where I've been. "Guess what my job was," he asks? It turns out he's recently retired as a biologist and head of fauna with the national park; his special interest being the return of wolves. "We waited more than 15 years for them," he recalls, explaining that a noted Italian authority predicted more than 20 years ago that France would be repopulated by migrants from his country. Now it's happening with somewhere between three and six in the immediate vicinity. "Personally I'm pleased that they are back, but I also understand the almost impossible situation of the farmers and shepherds." How can France expect others to save tigers in places like Asia, he asks, if the same cannot be done for wolves closer to home.
Cevennes National Park executive Gregoire Gautier believes the wolves are here to stay
His observations are deeply insightful and he explains that with the demise of wolves in France the methods of rearing sheep changed and shepherds allowed them to stay out at night unprotected. Surely if shepherds returned to their traditional round-the-clock role, that would solve the problem, I suggest rather naively? It turns out that it isn't that simple as in some hotter areas the sheep feed at night and in the early mornings and can't be herded into protective enclosures. They need to roam to graze. These days it's also no longer assumed that the son of a shepherd will follow in his father's footsteps. The job of minding sheep carries a stigma and shepherds are unkindly portrayed as slow-witted and simple. Besides many young people are attracted to a more social night life in towns and cities. To pay a reasonable salary to a shepherd also challenges the financial viability of the business, completing a vicious circle that conspires against a return to arguably more effective methods. But perhaps the most worrying dimension is that many country people don't relate to the concept of conserving nature, their perception being that they need to protect themselves from nature as a hostile outside force, be it snow, wind or wolves!
While we're talking my phone beeps as I receive confirmation that Gregoire Gautier, head of sustainable development and scientific surveying and monitoring in the park, will see me. "Perfect," my charming chauffeur enthuses. "He's a very good young man and he was the first to see a wolf in this area." "I'm a friend of the wolf," Gregoire tells me, but argues that farmers and shepherds should be allowed to protect their flocks from attack, as long as they don't poison the wolves, which is disastrous for a variety of species including vultures. "I believe the wolf is here to stay because there is now four-and-a-half times more forest in this area than in the 1800s and recently a variety of prey species like deer and wild boar have returned. "The wolf is smart and difficult to track down," he says, "so it will survive."
Geoff gets to meet dozens of wolves at a park that attempts to separate myth from reality
He recounts that historic first sighting in the winter of 2009, when he and colleagues had separated into three groups and attempted to track what they believed might be a wolf in deep, fresh snow. They'd collected hair and dung samples and almost given up after several hours as a blizzard and fresh snowfalls made the tracks increasingly difficult to follow. Then the mists cleared and as Gregoire scanned the edge of a forest through his binoculars, the lone wolf appeared moving at a relaxed pace. He called to his ranger colleague Jean-Marie Fabre and they watched spellbound for about two minutes before the mists closed in again as it entered the forest. "It is one of my most cherished nature experiences," he insists. A month ago the national park bought that same forest to stop logging and support wildlife – and that makes Gregoire's heart sing!