When night falls in the Charente, the inhabitants of its rural villages retreat to their homes. They lock their doors and pull iron-hinged timber shutters over every window. Pale sandstone walls, grey with age, cracked and pitted, their seams of lime mortar dried to dust, become as impenetrable as medieval keeps. In the dark, you could be forgiven for thinking these sullen villages were deserted long ago. The narrow streets are empty and silent; the lights illuminating them are extinguished before midnight.
Five years ago, we lived in one of these villages. We were halfway through our first winter there when we came across the wolf.
My wife was driving my then 21-year-old son and me home from dinner in the nearby city of Cognac. We had opted for the back roads, narrow, black asphalt chemins that wound past old family vineyards, cask makers and small distillers. When we finally turned onto the unmarked tractor trail, a strip of chalky limestone and fractured stone, that led to our cottage, the darkness was absolute, as if this part of the world had been laid beneath a black velvet shroud.
We saw the eyes first, bright yellow on the hazy periphery of a halogen beam, like the glint of something precious on a river bed. My wife braked. They were no more than twenty feet away, at the edge of a long row of black, leafless vine stumps tethered to lengths of wire.
The wolf loped out of the vineyard onto the road in front of us. Larger than a German shepherd but leaner, its musculature well-defined under a coat that was grey-black on top and a grubby russet along the belly and flanks, there was no question it was a wolf. Its snout was long and thin, with pale, curved incisors visible beneath lacertine grey flews. Its limbs were slightly splayed and each tensed slightly in turn as the animal adjusted its balance to account for the various possibilities of what might happen next. Holding us in an impassive, incurious gaze, it could close on us, or put a safe distance between us, in a couple of strides. It was still and unafraid, and didn’t make a sound.
For a few of them, ‘keeping the wolf from the door’ is a memory, not a metaphor.
Within a minute, the wolf decided we were no threat. It turned slightly into an unnoticed dead area of our headlights – and disappeared. None of us said a word as we drove the few hundred yards home.
“It was definitely a wolf,” my son insisted over breakfast the next morning. He had a series of photographs arrayed across the screen of his laptop and all were much like the animal we had seen, even if ‘our’ wolf had looked bigger. Later in the day, I searched out the weathered old man who owned and worked the vineyard we had driven through. When I told him about the wolf, he cackled and waved a calloused, dismissive palm at my face: “Mais non. Il n’y a pas de loups ici.”
There were, and are, established wolf packs a few hundred miles to the south, in northern Spain. The Iberian grey wolf, canis lupus signatus, was almost wiped out by a policy of extermination by the Franco government in the ‘50s and ‘60s, leaving only a small, resilient pack confined to the Picos de Europa National Park. Half a century later, the descendants of those survivors, more than two dozen breeding groups comprising over 2,000 animals, range north to the Western Pyrenees, across Basque country and Navarre, and south to within 40 miles of Spain’s capital, Madrid.
There are also Eurasian grey wolves, canis lupus lupus, a few hundred miles east of the Charente, in the rugged uplands of the Lozère, at the edge of the Massif Central. In all, there are around 12,000 wolves ranged across Europe and lone animals or small packs have been sighted as far south as Rome and Athens, and as far north as Hamburg, the North Sea coast of The Netherlands, southern Scandinavia, and Poland. Most are believed to have originated from a population of less than 100 grey wolves in the Italian alps that were protected more than 40 years ago, having been hunted to near-extinction in the rest of Europe.
The resurgence of the wolf coincided with economic decline in southern Europe. As rural communities emptied into urban centres, pressure from farming and hunters on deer, chamois, wild boar, fox, hare and other game was relieved and there was a marked increase in the quantity and distribution of the wolf’s potential prey. But among country folk, there is still antipathy towards the wolf, tinged with atavistic superstition. As Peter Taylor, a British ecologist and editor of the journal, Rewilding, noted in The Guardian newspaper a few years ago, “They remind older people of hard times – a sign that civilisation is slipping backwards perhaps.” For a few of them, “keeping the wolf from the door” is a memory, not a metaphor.
A wolf on the move is a formidable thing. A healthy animal can cover around 50 miles a day in open country and is largely undeterred by urban development. So-called dispersing wolves, those who abandon a pack to search for a mate, think nothing of migrating hundreds of miles across disparate topography. They negotiate freeways, railways and bridges easily to hunt on the perimeters of some of Europe’s largest industrialised cities, usually unseen. Between the vineyards of the La Petite Champagne and the foothills of the western Pyrenees in the south and the Massif Central in the west, there is a lot of sparsely populated, wooded countryside – which is to say, there are no obstacles at all for a shrewd, motivated wolf.
He had found the remnants of a deer’s torso, mostly bones streaked with blood and entangled with desiccated skin.
Besides, a wolf could pass at night through the heart of any of the Charente’s shuttered hamlets and no-one would be the wiser. Even if glimpsed among the surrounding woodlands, vineyards – some 200,000 acres of them in this region – or fertile expanses of maize, rape, and sunflowers, almost none of which are fenced, a single animal would likely not attract curiosity. At a distance, it would be indistinguishable from a dog.
“Pas de loup,” we were told by other locals, always with a measure of amusement, as if the idea was absurd.
Some months after we encountered the wolf, on the first day of a mild summer, hunters spilled into the fields around our cottage to stalk roe deer, fox, hare and wild boar. A solitary short-toed tailed eagle perched atop a timber vine stake opposite our front gate, probably waiting for the heavy-footed hunters to startle a snake onto open ground. Overhead, a few kites and harriers hovered for small game: field mice, dormice, voles, and shrews. We had been told by locals to stay out of the vineyards to avoid getting shot.
At the end of the day, the hunters returned to their cars, parked on the rough lane that ran by our back garden. A few had the carcasses of gutted rabbits cinched to their belts and rucksacks, but nothing bigger. I asked one, a stonemason I knew, how the hunt had gone. The bigger game was not yet abundant, he told me: “It’s as if they’ve been scared away.” But by what? He and another had found the remnants of a deer’s torso, mostly bones streaked with blood and entangled with desiccated skin and viscera, in a patch of woods on a hillside above the nearby village. He had no idea what might have killed it: “Ne sais pas, ne sais pas.” You could tell the not knowing unsettled him.
We never saw the wolf again and no-one else ever admitted having seen it. For months afterwards, every time we drove through the surrounding countryside, we were alert to the possibility of its presence, scanning idly for unlikely movement at the edge of an open field or atop a grassy ridge line or within dense stands of young oak by the river. Gradually, our memory of it was tempered by other things that were, in some ways, almost as unfamiliar, not least the subtle, seasonal mutability of the land itself, or strange, like the oak casks of older Cognac distillations that were stored among the dead in dank, mouldy crypts below our local church. Still, in this empty region of France, where people are not yet done with the past, the materialising of a wolf, as if from myth or whispered fairy tale, was a reminder that this ancient predator could re-assert its rightful place at any time, not just in this landscape, but also, no matter how robust our framework of 21st century rationality, within our primal fears.
Photography by CC O’Hanlon.
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.