The Eurasian Wolf, Canis lupus lupus was last seen in the wild in lowland central western France in the early 20th century but the plethora of place names referencing this legendary animal pay testimony to its presence in the past. Places names incorporating the word loup or leu (the old spelling of the French word for wolf) abound. The name Chanteloup is particularly common, and signifies that in the middle ages professional wolf hunters must have made camp there (chante in this case means 'works site', although it also, rather conveniently, means 'singing').
A wolf at l'Espace Animalier de la Haute-Touche
In the summer of 1695 there was an rash of wolf attacks in the Touraine, with a number of people being recorded as having been 'eaten by wolves', and the priest at Fondettes wrote that wolves had killed or wounded many children in his own and neighbouring parishes. There was another peak in the wolf attack records during the 1760s. By this time newspapers were in common circulation, and journalists were as happy then as now to sensationalise the news. As a consequence, it can be very difficult to get an accurate picture of the circumstances surrounding these attacks and the truth of the accounts.
Wolves at l'Espace Animalier de la Haute-Touche
In French, the wolf of the fairytales is le grand méchant loup, which translates into English as something like 'the great evil wolf', rather than the wolf of British fairytales, the somewhat downgraded 'Big Bad Wolf'. The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, as we know it today from the Brothers Grimm, was originally Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, a French fairytale.
According to one French source I have read, there have been 3000 recorded incidents of wolves attacking people from 15th to the 20th centuries in France. Roughly half of these attacks involved rabid wolves. Now that rabies has been virtually eradicated in France it is difficult to imagine what a danger this almost invariably fatal disease once posed, especially to people who lived on the land and close to nature. Attacks by rabid wolves were more prevalent in the dark days of winter, in areas of human habitation, and when humans and animals were huddled together for shelter, so there were often a number of eye witnesses and a lingering sense of terror. Attacks by healthy wolves tended to occur in the summer months, when wolves and humans were more likely to surprise and frighten one another in remote places.
In 1800 it is estimated that there were 5000 wolves in France. By 1900, the number had reduced tenfold, and there were only 500 left. The last wolf in Indre et Loire was shot at Ferrière Larçon in 1908, and the last of the original wild population of wolves in France was killed in 1939.
By the 19th century the number of attacks had dwindled almost to nothing. The estimates for the remnant population in the 20th century seem believable to me, given what one reads about the relentless and habitual poisoning, shooting, hunting and trapping of wolves over the centuries. A population of 500 individuals is a very rare animal indeed, a species clearly heading for extinction. Species in this situation tend to hold on only in the most remote places (in the case of wolves in France, I would assume the heavily wooded Massif Central).
Professor Moriceau, the historian who has scoured the French archives for records of wolf attacks, is aware that his findings may not fit the politically correct view of wolves today as noble animals wary of humans and much misunderstood. He acknowledges that he is not a zoologist and therefore refuses to make a judgement about whether the 'wolves' involved in the attacks were really 'wolves' in the strict sense that we would understand the term today. It seems quite likely that at least some of these 'wolves' were feral dogs, for instance. This is an emotive area for animal lovers, and the truth is not well served by the sentimental and romantic style of most of the websites dedicated to promoting and protecting the wolf on the one hand and the automatic knee-jerk 'exterminate the killer beasts' response of some of the shepherds who fear for their flocks. Fortunately, much good work is now being done by scientists working with shepherds to develop flock management techniques that allow wolves to thrive and shepherds to earn an income and feel that their animals are not being exposed to unacceptable risks. However, in 2010 there were 86 wolf attacks on sheep, which really stretched the friendship. Since 2004 only 4 wolves have been killed in France, under special licence because they were causing a problem amongst the herds.
Wild wolves are being seen in the remote uplands of France again. There are perhaps as many as 200 individuals split into 20 packs now. Wolves moving in from the Italian Alps have reached the Auvergne and Franche-Comté. By the summer of 2011 wolves reached the Vosges mountains in Alsace-Lorraine after an 80 year absence and in the winter of 2008/09 it was announced that there is a resident population in the Cézannes National Park. Professor Moriceau predicts that they may appear in the forests north of Paris, but sadly, it is unlikely they will ever return of their own accord to the Touraine, Berry and Poitou, as the plains of western France are no longer remote and wooded enough to make wolves feel at home. You can see wild wolves near Preuilly, but not in the wild. The Muséum national de l'Histoire naturelle has a number of wolves at the Espace Animalier de la Haute-Touche, but be prepared to stand aside on the viewing platform as excited 10 year old French children rush up with cries of 'laylooo ! laylooo !'