The company of wolves: hunting an ancient predator in the Paris commuter belt

When I say that I intend to go into the forest to search for the wolves, the tourist office advises that I keep to the shortest paths.

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From the train, it is hard to tell where Paris ends and the countryside begins, but there is enough frozen farmland and forest around Rambouillet to stir in me a childish thrill as I travel south-west out of the city. I am a solitary figure, arriving in a sleepy French town in the midwinter chill, hunting for wolves. Who cares if I am only in the outer suburbs of a European capital city?

“They came from the east of the country,” Manoël Atman, the president of Alliance avec les Loups (“alliance with wolves”), said on the phone the previous day. “The Aube and Yonne departments have acted like a highway for wolves escaping poachers, and around Paris is a perfect habitat: not much agriculture, but a lot of woods.”

Then Atman told me about the deer carcasses: two were found in Rambouillet Forest in December. “Their lungs and heart [had been] removed,” he said, apparently unaware of how sinister this sounds. “It’s a way of feasting quite specific to wolves,” he explained.

“Also, there have been separate reports of howling. You know, like, ‘Owweeee!’” Atman howled with the relish one would expect from someone running an association that claims to be “dedicated to the peaceful coexistence of man and wolf”.

Still, I remained a sceptic. Tales of beasts roaming the commuter belt are usually about as substantiated as yeti sightings. The presence of wolves outside Paris may be marginally more plausible than pumas in Surrey, but I wanted to investigate for myself.

Rambouillet is shuttered and silent when I arrive. I imagine the population cowering inside. In reality, it’s just a cold French village, out of season, at lunchtime.

Ideally, I would talk to a superstitious innkeeper, but instead head for the tourism office. There, Almira Musa confirms that, yes, there have been sightings. “But Rambouillet Forest is big,” she says. “I don’t think the wolves will come into town.”

When I tell her that I intend to go into the forest to search for them, she advises that I keep to the shortest paths.

“Why?” I ask. “Because of wolves?”

“No, because of the cold!”

They may have been absent for more than 200 years, but wolves have a gruesome history in the French capital. In 1450, during the Hundred Years War with England, France became a wasteland of the dead and wounded. Having acquired a taste for human flesh, a wolf pack breached the walls of Paris. Led by a beast nicknamed Courtaud, these wolves terrorised the city for weeks, killing dozens of people. They were eventually coaxed into the square in front of Notre Dame, where a mob put them to death.

This story is at the front of my mind as I enter the forest. The cycle route that I walk down does not feel sinister but I still feel like prey. After a mile, reasoning that I’m unlikely to find a wild animal on a municipal path, I turn and crunch across a frosted carpet of fallen leaves until there is no human activity in sight.

Here, where no jogger will chance upon me, I unleash my pre-planned wolf-searching technique: I howl. The idea is that if there are any wolves in the forest, they will howl back.

They do not. I feel like an idiot. This sensation only intensifies when I realise that I am lost. Suddenly, a wolf howl is the last thing I want to hear.

Even before 1450, the wolf was a symbol of all that was frightening in the world. In Anglo-Saxon England, the creature was so reviled that people could pay their taxes in wolf heads.

It is tempting to see wolves at the gates of Paris as a metaphor for the rise of Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which is expected to terrorise France’s liberal urbanites in this election year. Yet to castigate wolves without exception would be unfair. Even in the Middle Ages, they were known as “beasts of the half-light” and were said to represent both sides of human nature.

“The wolf tells us something about ourselves, about how we want to live on this Earth,” Atman told me. “They are an umbrella of biodiversity,” he said, explaining how wolves not only help to control herbivore populations but change the behaviour of those that remain. This allows habitats to flourish, improving the health of river systems, physical geography, and so on.

In the 1970s, there were fewer than 100 wolves left in western Europe, concentrated in a small pocket of northern Italy. Attitudes such as Atman’s have since led to protection laws that have brought the animal back from the brink of extinction. The wolves in the Paris region are believed to be descendants of that Italian colony.

Not everyone is pleased that the beasts are back. Wolves remain a threat to livestock and disrupt the lives of farmers, who have little recourse against the protected species. In 2014, in a gruesome echo of the Anglo-Saxon custom, Italian farmers in Tuscany protested by dumping wolf carcasses in the region’s towns and villages.

In the forest, the sun sets and the half-light begins. Just as my attitude to being lost is slipping from “This will make a good story” to panic, I find myself back on the cycle path, and much closer to the edge of the forest than I had thought.

It’s at that moment, flooded with relief, that I hear it: a long, low howl on the biting wind. Or perhaps it is the wind, or some other idiot searching for wolves. Then I hear it again, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I am glad to be living in a Europe that has room in it for wolves, but I’m also glad to be at the edge of the forest now, and that the animals have not quite yet breached the city walls. 

This article appears in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage