MountainPassions teams up with multi-activity specialists Undiscovered Mountains to bring you this extraordinary account of tracking wolves in the Southern French Alps.
European Grey Wolves are present in the Southern Alps and are a protected species
We awake early and set off in search of wolf activity, in a wild, mountainous and little-visited corner of the French Alps. My husband, Bernard Guillaume, is the expert – he’s a high mountain guide and wolf enthusiast, and we’re tracking wolves with clients on wolf tracking trips with Undiscovered Mountains. Under no illusions or expectations that we will find anything at all, we’re nevertheless rewarded almost straight away by the discovery of fresh tracks. Two tracks, one slightly smaller than the other, in the classic straight-line formation, suggest this is a wolf, rather than a dog; Bernard confirms it is probably a father and his son, who are known to patrol this territory.
We follow the tracks up a wide forest track – the wolves have chosen to follow the path of least resistance. The tracks are steady and regular… it seems they are strolling, not running. Are they walking on full bellies and gradually digesting, patrolling their territory as part of a regular control, or are they searching quietly for prey? The tracks continue upwards, and we come across a fresh dropping. It looks like a large dog poo but full of hair, and as Bernard pokes it open, we discover bits of bone too. Just next to it is a smaller poo of similar consistency but with the addition of berries, giving it a slightly red colour, “This is a fox poo..” explains Bernard, “they often follow the wolves in the hope of scavenging their prey, and leave their mark as they go.” Further up the wolves defecate again, but this time the fox has not followed suit – perhaps distracted by something else along the way.
As we arrive in a small sheltered clearing, the tracks change their rhythm and we see shorter paces, skids and slides, and then large areas of rolled-out snow. What’s going on here? Were they playing, maybe chasing after an animal that has crossed their path? We see no other tracks to suggest the second explanation and it’s a perfect spot to chill out, so maybe they did just that – a bit of messing around before an afternoon nap. We do the same, and eat our lunch where the wolves had considerately flattened the snow for us.
After lunch we pick up the tracks again and follow them. They continue up and up, still following the path of least resistance and keeping the same rhythm. Then, for no apparent reason, the tracks separate. One goes off left down the side of the mountain, while the other continues along a forest trail. Bernard explains that they are probably separating to hunt. We follow the wolf on the forest trail. He’s briefly distracted, and goes towards the edge of the trail before his partner rejoins him – obviously there was nothing very interesting down there!
But they’re not giving up yet, and shortly afterwards they split again. Then suddenly our wolf does a huge jump, and we can see the skid of his landing as he sprints off down the mountainside. We quickly understand why. Just ahead we see the tracks of a chamois crossing the path, obviously unaware of the approaching predator just behind him. It’s now too steep to attempt to follow the pursuit, but Bernard has a look with his binoculars in search of blood or other signs in the snow. He finds nothing. We continue along our forest trail, and after a while the wolves come back. Did they catch the chamois or did it escape? They’re back in their patrolling stride, making it easy to follow them while picturing the father and son bonding as they walk.
We stop for a drink, and Bernard spots a chamois opposite us on the other side of the mountain. It’s limping, as if injured. Is this the fated chamois the wolves attacked? Did it escape with a broken leg – or is this an old injury from some other event? We’ll never know the answer, but we understand perfectly how tough the reality of life is for animals in this wilderness.
The wolves decide to take a short cut up the mountainside but it’s too late for us to follow them. “They are almost certainly going up to the col..”, says Bernard. “It’s a well known passage for animals to pass through.” We take a short-cut back down, off-trail in the woods and mountainsides. It’s great fun and half way down Bernard stops and suggests we howl. “There’s a good chance that the wolves have gone round to the other side of the mountains from the col. If we howl, they may respond.” We howl and hear it echo and rebound off the mountain sides. Then we wait in silence: nothing. So we carry on.
Guide Bernard Guillaume howling
I drop back briefly and let the others go off in front. The mountains are silent around me, and then I hear it – the faint but unmistakable echo of a howl. I stop and listen, focusing intensely on the sound. At first I don’t believe myself; surely it can’t be the wolves replying to us? But if it is I must get to the others quickly, to see if they heard it, too. I run, and of course all the noise of my running cuts out any other sound. I arrive breathless, assuming they have heard it. But they haven’t, so we stop and listen again. I suddenly feel very stupid – maybe it was my imagination getting carried away?
And then I hear it again, this time stronger. In fact, we all hear it, and exchange awestruck looks. We listen and then Bernard howls again. When we stop and listen again it’s definitely the wolves, and there are many voices in the pack – certainly more than two. The sound is eerie but at the same time joyful, and is powerful, too… I can almost feel the sound waves hitting my body. It’s also one of the most magical wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. We continue to exchange howls with our mystery wolves for 10 full and glorious minutes before they move off, and the howling stops. We also head off and continue back down to the car, ending up just to the right of where we started.
Arriving from a different angle means we spot something very important, which we’d missed this morning. In the field behind the track is a carcass. It’s a deer, but all we see is blood-stained snow and lots of tracks going back and forth. It’s almost certainly the early morning kill of the wolves we followed today, and the rest of the local animals have finished it off during the morning. Now even the bones have been scavenged and taken off to feed hungry bellies hidden in the forest.
It also completes the picture, and now we can imagine the wolves with their bellies full, proudly patrolling their territory, relaxing, playing and hunting probably more out of instinct than of need for today…