Successful European efforts to protect the wolf population over several decades have created a situation seen now to pose an existential threat to a pastoral French way of life. To the great chagrin of some 60,000 shepherds in the French Alps region, the rebound of the now-thriving wolves has been due in no small part to their feasting on area livestock, with tens of thousands of sheep reported killed in recent years. The various efforts to combat the killings—and the general sense of remote French life in the haunting shadow of wolves—struck a chord with Jay M. Smith, author of Monsters of the Gévaudan, who weighs in below on this episode’s historical parallels.
In a recent story on the proliferation of wolves, and wolf attacks, in the French Alps, the New York Times unwittingly sounded echoes from the distant past. To any readers attuned to French lore, all the major chords would have sounded familiar. Stealthy, vicious predators. Fearful and angry sheepherders. Economic disruption. Bungled hunts and missing firearms. Rural communities steeped in anxiety and fearing for their future. Expensive but ineffectual measures from the national authorities. The whole episode drenched, as the Times reporter operatically intoned, in “a great quantity of blood.”
The Times story focused on the concerns of shepherds in the southern French Alps who have lost, by one official count, 20,000 sheep to wolf attack since 2008. Those Alpine shepherds would probably find little consolation in being reminded of one of history’s most constant lessons: however bleak current conditions, others have had it worse. A wolf panic strikingly similar to the one roiling the Alps gripped the southern Massif Central, about two hundred miles to the west of today’s affected area, in the middle 1760s. Then, too, sheepherders feared for their livelihoods as murderous attacks in the hilly pastures of the Gévaudan disrupted markets and left many afraid to venture into their fields. The killer or killers were hard to track, and official policies limiting access to firearms caused a sense of helplessness among locals. Indecisiveness and fitful action from the government compounded frustrations. The bloodshed continued for several years.