Man is wolf to Man, of course, but in France, to which the wolf in its most literal form, Canis lupus, has recently returned (from Italy, as it happens), Man is definitely not wolf to wolf. In fact the penalty for killing a wolf in France is a fine of up to €150,000 and imprisonment for up to seven years. Murderers escape the fine and sometimes spend less time in prison.
I suppose this tells us, or at least it tells economists, who are not the same as the rest of us, something about the scarcity value of wolves as against men. There are estimated to be approximately 300 wolves in France at the moment, and they are increasing in number by a fifth every year. Of course, a projection is not a prediction, but if this trend continued, there would be 11,500 wolves in twenty years’ time, killing nearly a third of a million sheep a year. In early modern France, there were thought to be 15,000 wolves in the country.
I first became aware of the wolf question when I noticed a slogan panted in large white letters on the road about two miles from my house: Mort aux loups, death to wolves. They had recently returned to our department, after an absence of just over ninety years. The last wolf in the Ardèche had been killed in 1922, only fourteen years before the last known Tasmanian tiger died in a zoo in Hobart.
Everything that happens these days is grist to someone’s ideological mill, and of course there is now a conflict over the highly-protected status of the wolf in France. Is the presence of the wolf on national territory a sign of a welcome return of biodiversity, or is it a threat to the livelihood of sheep-farmers, whose income does not generally match that of, say, traders in futures or cosmetic surgeons?
This column appears in the October edition Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
There is general agreement that wolves are not good for sheep. They sometimes go on killing sprees, doing to death far more sheep than they can ever eat. But that is not all. It was said that once you have been tortured, you remain tortured; and a flock of sheep that has been once attacked remains attacked. Its milk yield declines, the animals lose weight, they have fewer lambs and more miscarriages.
Since sheep farmers cannot kill wolves, at least not openly, they must resort to other ways of protection, but these are costly in both time and money. Night-time enclosures, electrified fences, powerful sheepdogs, expensive to keep and lengthy to train: these are some of what wolves have made necessary. Warning shots—warning to the wolves, that is—are the last resort; and a precarious living has for some become an impossible one.
The ecological party to the argument can hardly deny this; but they claim that there are compensatory advantages to wolves.
The wolf has returned to France because of Man’s flight from the countryside, abandoned for the delights of discos and supermarkets. Because of modern agricultural productivity, permanent overproduction is now our problem, not scratching a bare living from the grudging soil. The less fertile areas of France, considerable in extent, have been abandoned, then, and returned to a more or less wild state. Without predators, wild boar and deer have multiplied, to the point of becoming a severe nuisance for those agricultural or silvicultural activities that remain (to say nothing of our garden). Wolves will help to keep them down, and when they were re-introduced into Yosemite National Park, biodiversity did markedly increase.
Now it so happens that my house is in an area ripe, so to speak, for colonisation by wolves. There are few people, but many boar and deer. I ask myself, “Do I want the wolves to come?”
Though I now live half the year in almost total isolation, I am city born and bred, and my answer is essentially a frivolous one: yes, I want the wolves to come because they have such intelligent, dog-like faces, and because I would be thrilled by the idea that there were wild animals all around. I want to hear them howl at night while I am tucked up in bed. And I would love to see some fluffy wolf-cubs gambolling in the meadow at the back of my house.
But if Man is no longer a wolf to wolf, is wolf a wolf to Man? For several centuries it was the ambition in France to rid the national territory of these dangerous and predatory vermin, but more recently the wolf has enjoyed a better press, and somehow it had seeped into my consciousness that, really, wolves are darling creatures, who kill almost apologetically and only though physiological necessity. The viciousness of wolves was supposedly a myth, fairy tale, or Jungian collective memory, like cannibalism. Moreover, we owe an immense debt of gratitude to wolves: they gave us the dog, which is, if not the greatest consolation known to Man, the greatest consolation known to me and many others like me.
However, I discovered that there have been 3000 recorded attacks on Man by wolves in France, though many of them at a time when the standard of reportorial accuracy was below that of White House reportage today. In the early 1800s, wolves were particularly ferocious, and this was attributed to an invasion of Spanish wolves accustomed to the joys of human flesh on the battlefields of Spain. Native wolves would never dream of being so nasty.
I began to read of the Beast of Gévaudan, a wolf of monstrous size and cunning, or possibly (according to rumour or some writers) a hyena or other hideous carnivorous creature, who, in the mid-1760s, terrorised many of the villages through which I pass on my way to my house from England, by maiming, killing, decapitating, eating and stripping naked many victims, principally young girls while tending their flocks. At one time, 20,000 people were out hunting for la Bête féroce, as it was known at the time, and though two large wolves were eventually killed, it is still not certain that these were not scapewolves, to employ a neologism.
In fact, as I read accounts of the depredations of the Beast of Gévaudan, I could not help but think that the beast was a serial killer acting under cover of a generalised fear of wolves. The Beast, whoever or whatever it was, had a predilection for little girls, whom he stripped and mutilated. This sounded (to a modern, urbanised ear) more like Jack the Ripper than Mother Nature: but as the Abbé François Fabre says in the very last sentence of his book about the beast, La Bête du Gévaudan, “It is not right to judge other times and other places by the standards of here and now.” His book was published in 1904.
There are records of children eaten by wolves in the villages all around me:
On October 13, 1812, Marie Chat, aged only three, playing near her house and parents, was devoured by a wolf. A year later, on October 13, 1813, it was her brother, Alexis Chat, who was devoured by wild beasts near his house …
Am I, then, still in favour of the return of wolves chez moi? They might keep the boar away who repeatedly ruin our flowerbeds with their powerful snouts, but which (I speak here of the flowerbeds) we do not want to disfigure with protective but unsightly netting or electrified fences. If they increase biodiversity, that would be a charming thing. And it must be remembered that the statistical chances of anyone being killed by them are infinitesimal, certainly by comparison with other dangers. Let us not forget that, when Marie and Alexis Chat were eaten by wolves, their chances of reaching adulthood were in any case much reduced, and incomparably more young children were carried away by disease and even accident than by wolves. Why, then, worry about wolves, as if they were the only threat to our existence?
What should be our policy with regard to the immigration of wolves? Do we need them, do we not need them, do we need them not to be present? Perhaps the question is too late: they are coming whether we like it or not. We can only hope that wolf is not really wolf to man.
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is his first collection of short stories, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, published in August by New English Review Press under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.