Respected naturalists and wildlife photographers Angelo Gandolfi and Elisabeth Van Lersel undertake a journey through southern France, Spain and Portugal, discovering large predators and their impact on the environment and human communities living in the same ecosystems. Their first stop: the Mercantour National Park, in the French Alps. Here’s what they write…
Ancient borders and the Mercantour National Park
At the Colle di Tenda (the Tende pass) in the Alps, the perception of crossing a border these days is clear. However, for those who lived there in recent centuries it was never like this.
When the County of Nice was annexed to France in 1860, the Count of Cavour, an Italian statesman and leading figure in the unification of Italy, worked to ensure that La Val Roia – a 59 km (37 mi) valley bordering Italy and France – remained Italian.
The Italians lost ownership of the region during the Second World War and the border moved eastwards, from the crest of Mount Bego (the southernmost part of the Mercantour National Park as it is today) to Monte Pietravecchia.
Despite changing borders, for many inhabitants, nothing changed because the region’s main economic activity, sheep farming, has no boundaries. In the summer the flocks came from Provence, the pastures were shared…
Even today the Italian herders bring their animals to graze on the French meadows.
The ferocious beast
The Maritime Alps have always represented one of the most permeable borders of the Alps, and “illegal” immigrants know this well. Among those to furtively arrive towards the end of the 1980s, was a migrant of the four-legged kind, the wolf.
By the 1970s, wolf numbers in Italy were critically low with just a hundred specimens living between Calabria and Abruzzo. Then in 1971, the apex predator was declared a protected species; following this, species numbers recovered, and their range expanded northwards through the Apennines: Lazio, Tuscany and Liguria.
The first sighting in France was in 1992 and the French magazine Terre Sauvage announced: “finally something good comes from Italy”!
Not everyone thought so though. There had been no wolves in France for such a long time, and even sheep-farming had changed; it was often considered a second job or even a hobby: hundreds of sheep were left unguarded on the pastures… a real feast for the wolves!
Despite the inevitable retaliation (where heads of the wolves killed were put on display as a warning to others to stay away) our predator managed to settle permanently; their prey, not just sheep but chamois, ibex, mouflon and wild boar that were prevalent in the national park.
As the wolf had protected status in the European Union, the French authorities accepted the situation and equipped itself, recommending farmers use guard dogs, fences, etc. to protect their flocks… everything that the Calabrian and Abruzzese shepherds knew they had to do all along.
Furthermore, the French government agreed to compensate farmers for flock lost due to predation the same as in other countries where the wolf was protected.
Alpha, Parc des Loup
We traveled down through the Val Roia from the Col di Tenda in the cold and snowy month of May to Sospel, near Italy, then journeyed north to St Martin in Val Vésubie. There, at le Boréon, we were sure to see wolves at Alpha, Le Parc des Loup, a local wildlife park where wolves roam free and the landscape is spectacular and enclosed by very large fences. Alpha also has an important educational function, similar to the park at Civitella Alfedena.
In the park, the population has stabilized to around 40 wolves, while there are currently around 360 throughout the rest of France. However, every year national legislation allows/considers a cull. For 2018, this figure is anticipated to be between 10 and 12% of the population. Using this predator management method, the French authorities estimate that by 2023 the number of wolves should rise to around 500 animals. We will see….
Meanwhile, the Italian wolf has been spotted on the outskirts of Paris, and even in Belgium. But the main direction of expansion is to the west in southern France and to the north in the Alps to a lesser extent.
In the second episode of our diary extract, we will look at the situation of the wolf (and the bear) in the Pyrenees.