Wolves Again

Here in the French Alps, wolves have been reported in the area for the last few years but I have never seen or heard anything of them until recently. Yesterday, my neighbour showed me where a red deer had been killed in our woods and I cannot find any other explanation apart from that it was wolves. One of the things that holds me back from saying outright it was a wolf kill though, is that it took place 5 minutes’ walk from my front door just off a path through the woods where there is a moderate amount of (human) activity during the summer and winter months. However, there is also a 50 foot barn not so far off, which houses around 60 sheep (and their lambs) all winter, which tbqh smells pretty pungent right now. We are at the end of a small valley with very steep (and wild) mountains on three sides and the open end has a gorge that pretty much cuts us off from the main town.

Unfortunately, not much of the actual deer was remaining when I got to it, but my neighbour told me that there was a piece of skin a foot square and many pieces of intestines at the site the day before yesterday as his dog had tried to eat some of it. It did look like a frenzy had taken place though; patches of blood all over the place, bits of excrement and there was a large impression in the snow that was lined with red deer fur. There were footprints of fox and dog and some larger dog paw shapes all around but nothing I could say was conclusively a wolf print (we get some big dogs wandering around here). There was one trail off up into the forest that had signs of blood on it (I am going to go and check it out today). It looked like many animals had visited the site to check it out and in fact ten days ago I came across the fresh hind leg of a deer (from the hip down) on the path 100m away from the kill site, which looked like it had been carried there by a fox (from the prints all around it) and literally was dropped just before I found it (because the ski pisteur had passed through only half an hour before and groomed the snow completely clean and the leg was on top of that snow).

Anyway, I did some research on the internet and apparently wolves kill their prey by either biting its rear end or ripping some skin off its side and pulling out its intestines so that the deer can still run, but bleeds to death along the trail and finally falls down so that the wolf can eat it. This would I say, correspond with what happened here. I can’t think of anything else that would have killed such a large deer in such a way apart from a lynx, which we also have here so the jury is still out. In addition, I’ve not heard any howls so if there are any wolves around there must be only one or two of them. And I remember another neighbour down the valley did tell me that she heard a lone wolf had attacked a dog near to her home.

In some ways, I don’t want to have conclusive evidence that it was a wolf/wolves, not that I would ever hope to get it, because the question is now, do I continue to go out before dawn and sit in my spot (which is very near to the kill site) thinking that every movement in the bushes is a wolf waiting to pounce on me? Totally irrational I know but I think as a society these fears are so deeply ingrained in us that its hard to shake them off and esp. in the UK (unlike America and Canada) we have got used to the idea of tramping around the forest knowing that we will not be attacked by anything of animal origin. Maybe we have become too blasé about it. Perhaps it should become a little dangerous out there again. I know that I now have got a heck of a lot of respect for those woods and of course I know that a wolf is not going to randomly jump out and attack me. It is just very, very interesting how all of a sudden my relationship with that place has changed, I hope in a good way.

I always loved Little Red Riding Hood as I thought the REAL meaning behind the story was to actually to let yourself be tempted off the path by a wolf. How exciting is that? Maybe they have a lot to teach us when we do decide to stray a little, live our lives with a little bit of danger and face our fears. And how amazing would it be to come face to face with a wolf in a kind of Tom Brown jr. situation where you could just observe it getting on with its life? What a story that would make.

The headline in the local newspaper today, seen in the supermarket just now.

“Wolves are returning and the farmers are worried”

le loup rapproche

Badger Run

Out this morning at 6.15am, just as the first birds were starting to call. The Snow was falling very gently and very wetly, like it had been doing for most of the night. There was not such a lot of snow on the ground; just enough to cover the previous soggy layer. I walked towards the sit~spot as usual, which is about a five minutes walk from my house, following the tracks of my neighbour and his dog, who I know had walked up that way half an hour before me. Following, following; enjoying seeing evidence of the dog running around chasing snowballs in that crazy way only dogs can do, trying to work out my neighbour’s mood from his prints, when all of a sudden another track appeared alongside them. I knew instantly it was something not-dog.

badger prints in snow 2

What a treat! It was a badger’s tracks running up the same path as I was walking and he must have passed no more than a couple of hours before, considering that the snow was filling the tracks at a rapid pace. It’s funny how, once you have been following and closely observing tracks for a while, you instantly know when something is different from the norm and how distinctive badger tracks can be. I’m chuffed because I have actually been searching for badger since it snowed and these were absolutely gorgeous prints, the first ones I have seen this winter.

badger and dog prints in snow 6

You can tell the difference between badger and dog quite easily from the photo above; to the left is the badger track and to the upper right is one dog print. The dog’s is very defined, like a four-leaf clover almost; neatly placed with the two central claws being the most obvious, sitting right at the top of the print (fox’s print are more delicate, narrower and have a clear division between the top two pads and the bottom three). The badger’s tracks are more chaotic; it places its back paws on top and slightly forward of its front paws when walking and directly on top of each other when it trots, so the prints seem large and smudged. One thing that is unmistakable though, it has very long claws, which can stick out 2cms from the print and are often very deep. When the animal starts loping, you will find single prints too. This badger was doing a trot mixed with a gentle canter up the path on his nightly foray into the woods. Note below that another dog print has snuck into the shot, on the top right alongside the badger’s.

badger prints in snow 4

These were the most beautiful badger tracks I have ever seen. I was so excited about them that I had to rush back home and grab my SLR camera and start at the beginning again. You can see below that the snow had turned to rain during the early hours and under the trees it had left pockmarks in the snow. The tracks always remind me of a small bear’s.

badger prints in snow 5

badger prints in snow 1

I kept following the tracks for nearly a mile along the ski pistes. It used the main thoroughfare, which is also used by people, dogs, foxes, deer and hares but the difference was that instead of just walking in a straight line, it made an arc towards every bare patch of soil underneath the trunks of trees by the side of the piste. It was obviously digging around for roots and whatever grubs and other insects had already started to emerge in the warmer weather, shown by lots of disturbance in the earth. The tracks followed a definite pattern; clean paws walking towards a tree, dirty paws walking out the other side, away from the tree and on to the next one. The trail was easy to follow and I thought that I may find some hair snagged on a low branch where the badger had passed under but unfortunately, there was nothing.

badger prints in snow 3

Two hours later, I realised that I had completely missed my sit~spot and walked straight on past, so absorbed was I in following the tracks of the badger. But not to worry, that can wait for another time.

Wild Boar Stake-Out

I wanted to go back to the place I saw the boars yesterday during the day to suss out the area ready for a stake-out and I came across a ‘feeding station’. There was a barrel suspended from a tree with a solar panel attached to it, which I assume dispensed corm once a day for the boars to eat. There was corn scattered everywhere and this is the exact spot where I saw the boars feeding yesterday.

boar stake out 1

There was so much activity around this spot; tracks galore, faeces (with corn in it) and boar runs coming down from the forest behind (they made regular paths criss-crossing the patch):

boar stake out 2boar stake out 5

boar stake out 4

boar stake out 3

I found a good spot to sit, which was on a large tree-covered (glacial) rock in the middle of one of the boars’ path down into the feed site and it is now just a question of returning one evening at about 6pm to settle down before they come through.

I assume that the barrel had be erected by hunters. There are a few living in the small hamlet just below the site and a couple in my hamlet too. I always assumed that they were after red deer but this setup would provide a steady stream of boars during the hunting season too – very easy to pick off I would imagine, as from my experience, they don’t seem to be too frightened of people. I’m not sure about the quota on sanglier in this part of France but I would imagine that hunters are pretty much at liberty to take what they want in the open season and when I hear gunshots on some autumn nights coming from this direction, I am certain now that this will be what they are shooting at.

It seems a little bit of a cheat to just turn up and see wildlife that is regularly fed by someone but I feed the birds in my garden and enjoy watching them; so there is not really much difference, I suppose.