The shepherd sits on a rocky hillside. He shivers with cold as his flock graze nearby. The sun has gone down and it is getting dark. The shadows from the nearby forest are lengthening, making it hard to tell individual trees apart and falling on the more distant sheep. It’s time for him to call his flock home for the night. Suddenly the shepherd freezes. Was that the wind sounding through the trees? No, the noise comes again. That was no breeze, but a drawn out plaintive howl from beneath the eaves. Again it sounds. And is now answered from further down the mountainside. The pack is drawing near. The shepherd shivers again.
Luckily for our ovine friends and their protecting shepherds, this sort of fanciful scene is an historical one only throughout Europe. There are no wolf packs stalking through the evening shadows. But perhaps those days will return, and perhaps, according to the Economist, that return will not be too long away.
In the 1930s the last wolf was hunted from the French mainland. Hunters using rifles (as well as poison) had destroyed the population. The royal office of the Luparii (the wolf-catchers, created in the ninth century) could now be moved onto other jobs, such as maintaining healthy wildlife populations.
But in the 1990s, just when you thought it was safe to go out into the French countryside again…the wolves returned. They crossed over the Alps from Italy like some reverse-Hannibal and started to upset sheep-farmers in the South of France. Official estimates place the wolf population throughout the country at around 360 animals, up from 300 last year. And while environmentalists are happy, the farmers are less joyful.
But why did the wolves return? A large reason is rural depopulation. In Lozère departement, for example, there were 140,000 residents in the mid-19th century. Today the departement has just over half that number, and most of those live in towns. Throughout France as a whole, the forest is coming back: between 1990 and 2015, forest cover increased by an average of 102,000 hectares each year, as more fields were given over to trees. Now nearly a third of mainland France is covered by woodland of some sort. There is therefore more habitat for the wolves to live in and fewer humans to disturb them. And once they have moved back in, there are not the hunters to kill them. For a start, the number of hunting licences held in France has halved since the mid-20th century. More importantly, wolves are protected in Europe: hunting them is forbidden, although the state may cull them from time to time.
Our shepherd is probably in no danger at the moment. But in the future, as the ancient forests return and re-establish themselves on abandoned fields, as the hamlets and villages disappear, as the population moves into the neon-lit embrace of the towns and cities, the shepherd may have more reason to shiver. And to keep the Luparii on speed-dial.