Wolves in North West Italy getting brave during coronavirus lockdown

Written by on October 3, 2020 in Italy Stories

Animals of Aosta Valley

Wild animals, including wolves, usually stay high up in the mountains above the tree line. However during the long period of Covid lockdown they have been reclaiming territory much lower down, closer to town.

There have been many recent sightings of cervo (red deer) and lupo (wolf) in the low pastures around the villages. In Courmayeur, they found a stag trying to escape from a wolf hiding on a hotel balcony. The hotel was in the frazione (little part of a village) of La Palud which isn’t at all what you would call isolated.

Some locals are getting concerned. With all the cervo, camoscio (chamois, a species of Alpine goat-antelope), capriolo (roe deer), cinghiale (wild boar) and stambeccho (ibex) roaming around town they fear eventually someone could get hurt. Say if they panicked a large animal trapped in an enclosed space.

Near disappearance of wolves from Italy

Reappearance of the wolves in the North-West Italy means that us, residents in the region should be concerned about wolves? Must we consider them when making our excursions in the mountains?

Throughout history, mountain and forest dwellers who share the natural habitat of wolves have had to take their sinister yet noble neighbours into account. They have carefully managed their affairs in order to mitigate the risks of an attack on themselves and their livestock.

The population of wolves almost disappeared entirely from Italy and the rest of Europe during the period between 1800 and 1920. During these times the human population and the level of economic activity in mountain areas such as the Alps of Aosta Valley and Piemonte, was much higher than it is today. Confrontations with wolves were commonplace.

Farmers cleared forests to create new pastures which significantly reduced the area available for the wolves to occupy. At the same time, in order to protect their flocks and herds, local farmers hunted the wolves extensively. They also hunted the rest of the wildlife to near exhaustion. This added to the decline in wolf numbers who rely on an abundance of prey for their own food. By 1920 wolves had completely died out in the Alps. Only around 100 were left in the whole of the Country, living in the most remote mountain areas in Central and Southern Italy.

Wolves in North-West Italy

Return of wolves to the Italian Alps

After World War II there started a huge movement of people away from the mountain regions of Italy to the big cities. Local populations and economic activity in these areas declined significantly. Since that time forests have gradually regrown and stocks of cinghiali, cervi, stambecchi etc have replenished. Helped by deliberate efforts by local forestry and wildlife authorities, including buying animals from abroad to increase the breeding stock.

Today around 2000 wolves live in Italy, including throughout the Alps. Piemonte and the Aosta Valley were the first Alpine regions to see wolves returning. There are now approximately 300 living here in roughly 33 packs. The Aosta Valley forestry commission has identified 30-60 wolves living in the Aosta Valley, distributed evenly throughout the territory in 5 or 6 packs.

Should we be afraid of them?

Wolves are basically afraid of people so in normal circumstances we don’t need to be afraid of them. We don’t need to fear being attacked by them in and around our villages or even in our remote mountain cottages. When we are out walking or cycling in the mountains we will most probably find ourselves in a pack’s territory. However the wolves will hear and smell us coming and slink off so we will never know they are there.

We must be careful to make sure that our dogs and our small children stay reasonably close to us. That they don’t wander off too far on their own. If a stray dog enters into wolf territory and stays there too long then the pack will attack it and kill it. This does happen from time to time. Having said that, a dog alone in the forest is more likely to be killed by a cinghiale that it stumbles on in its hiding place than by a pack of wolves.

wolves reappearance in the North-West of Italy - during the lock-down they cause some problems with eating some ships

Shepherds and their livestock

The presence of a wolf pack in the area is, however, a real problem for shepherds who take their sheep, goats or cows up onto the high pastures during summer. Protecting their animals from attack is a 24-hour undertaking that also has a significant economic cost. This places increased pressure on the already limited financial viability of their activity. They need to invest time and money in putting up fencing and surveillance equipment if they themselves cannot spend all day on guard. Or they need to employ other shepherds to watch their livestock for them. It is no surprise then that many shepherds would gladly shoot wolves that stray too close. But they are not allowed to because wolves are nowadays a protected species.

Beautiful Pyrenean Mountain Dog

Be careful of guard dogs

Coming back to our own safety when we are enjoying an outing in the mountains where wolves are present. We do need to be careful about any guard dogs we come across that are looking after the animals! Especially if they have been left on their own or if their master is busy doing something else. Guard dogs used to protect against wolves are of course generally very big and strong.

The two most famous wolf guarding breeds in Italy are the Cane da Montagna dei Pirenei (Pyrenean Mountain Dog) and the similar-looking Maremmano Abruzzese or Pastore Maremmano (Maremma Sheepdog). I think that Belle, in Belle & Sebastien, is a Pyrenean. She is the most docile and friendly dog imaginable. Until she or one of her favourite humans is attacked! However many dogs being used are not so well-bred or well trained and are therefore not so reliable. So if we come across a flock of sheep grazing on a hillside while we are whizzing down a track on the mountain bike. Or if we arrive on our walk at a fenced-off area containing a few munching cows we should be careful not to get too close. Probably best to take an alternative path.

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