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Wolves in Chamonix

03/06/2023by Charlie4

Wolves in Chamonix

In 2020, the Chamonix valley lost a number of sheep to wolf attacks. Since then, wolves in Chamonix have become a hot topic. And despite various protective measures, they have not been put off. It seems they’re here to stay, and the community need to learn to live with them.

We wanted to find out more about them. Here’s what we’ve learnt…

Local Controversy

There are arguments for and against the wolves in Chamonix, and many people feel strongly one way or the other. Wolves feature in local newspaper articles and village Facebook groups, such as the Habitants de Servoz.

Arguments for the wolves

On the one hand, the repopulation of wolves could benefit alpine biodiversity. In particular, wolves would naturally manage the deer population in the valleys. Deer are selective breeders. They prefer to eat tree and shrub seedlings, as well as certain forest flowers. An over-abundant deer population would cause significant problems to the diversity of forest plants 1. At the moment, the local deer population is managed by hunters, but many locals dislike this tradition. Over the years, injuries and even deaths have been caused by hunting accidents.

Arguments against the wolves

On the other hand, sheep farmers are really struggling. They’re investing a lot of money into protective measures, such as guard dogs and electric fencing, only to find that their measures don’t work; they’re still being attacked. Hikers are having to avoid certain areas – such as the Pormenaz chalets – because of particularly aggressive guard dogs. Meanwhile, hunters are angry about the number of game supposedly killed by wolves 2.

Wolves in Chamonix
A short history

Between the 1930s and 1991, there were no wild wolves in France 3; organised campaigns to eliminate wolves succeeded, and they were completely wiped out. But then in 1992, two individuals were spotted in the Mercantour National Park, almost 400 kilometres from Chamonix. These are thought to have come over from Italy, where wild wolves had been growing in number.

Repopulation of wolves in France

After this first spotting, reports started to come in from other mountainous areas, such as the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. It’s estimated that between 530 and 630 wolves currently live in France 4. Up until recently, wolves have not been a concern in Chamonix. It was uncommon to see guard dogs in alpine pastures, and sheep roamed freely.

wolves in Chamonix


First sightings in Chamonix

People have reported wolf sightings in the Mont Blanc region for a while, and it was generally believed that one or two lived between Servoz and Vallorcine. No one really knew for sure, but then CREA (the Centre for Research in Alpine Ecosystems) put up a number of camera traps as part of their citizen science project.

Growing number

These cameras quickly caught footage of the wolves and, by showing the time, proved that there were at least two wolves in the valley. The camera traps filmed a female wolf dragging a deer leg through the forest, and then two wolf cubs playing between Vallorcine and Le Tour 5.

Wolves in Chamonix
Wolf above Servoz, caught on a CREA camera trap.

 

Wolf attacks

There have been a lot of wolf attacks in the Mont Blanc region over the last few years. They have been reported in the Chamonix valley, as well as Saint Gervais, Les Contaimes, Combloux and Passy.

2020 in the Chamonix Valley

The first six attacks took place in April 2020. Around thirty animals were killed (both sheep and goats) between Les Houches and Servoz 6. Two months later, in June 2020, a large flock of 970 sheep was attacked in Le Tour. Twenty sheep and one goat disappeared, despite the fact that the flock was protected by a large Anatolian shepherd dog. The French Office for Biodiversity investigated, and identified the presence of two wolves 7. One month later, another nine sheep from a different flock were killed, with ten more injured 8. By late July 2020, farmers had had enough. The mountain pastures were no longer safe, and they did not have the means to protect them. They decided to move their flocks down to shelter on the valley floor.

2021 around Saint-Gervais

Farmers in the Chamonix valley were relieved to see fewer attacks. They had invested in protective measures, such as electric fencing and guard dogs, which seemed to have worked 9. However, farmers in Saint-Gervais, Les Contaimines and Combloux started to report attacks. Their flocks were mostly unprotected at the time, which suggests that the wolf (or wolves?!) simply moved over to easier ground 10. In five days, thirty three sheep, two calves and one heifer were killed around Saint-Gervais.

2022 Mont Blanc region

By 2022, the majority of sheep and goats were enclosed in tall electric fences with at least one guard dog. It’s was not uncommon to see multiple dogs guarding one flock, but despite this, the wolves continued to cause problems. An electric sting was not enough to put them off, and they were getting past the dogs. One shepherd reports how his flock was attacked during the 30 minutes that he was feeding his dog 11, and then, in August last year, one of the Pormenaz dogs was attacked and killed 12.

2023 The current situation

Already this year, in May 2023, one sheep and a lamp has been killed in Servoz, not far above the village 13. The situation for farmers and breeders is pretty dire, to say the least. Regional experts are trying to determine what the situation is. Are we are dealing with a single wolf, or with a couple? Could it be that there exists a pack of wolves? The answer is still unknown, but more camera traps are being installed around the region. Wolves in France are protected, but in certain cases – for example, if a wolf returns to the same flock multiple time – a shepherd has the right to shoot it 14.

Wolf, TMB, June 2023
Photographed on a CREA camera trap, close to Col de Voza, June 2023

Are wolves dangerous? 

It’s important to note, there have been no wolf attacks on humans in the area. European wolves do not pose a threat to people. They’re nervous, and they don’t eat humans. Likewise, there have been no confirmed wolf attacks on pets, despite allegations. For us, along with feeling for our local farmers, our main concern is the fact that we’re having to live alongside guard dogs. These days, it’s common to see a guard dog while out hiking, and sometimes they are not enclosed.

Dogs used to protect against wolves

Wolves in Chamonix, shepherd dog
Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog

“Patou” is the colloquial name for the Great Pyrenese Mountain Dog 15. This a large white breed of dog used to fight off predators. Shepherds in the Mont Blanc area use a number of dog breeds, such as the Anatolian Shepherd 16, but locals refer to them all as “patou”.

Patou are raised with the shepherd’s flock as puppies. When the flock are moved up to the high pastures, the patou go with them. They spend the summer months out with the sheep and goats.

As guard dogs, patou are naturally territorial. They’re usually enclosed, but in some areas the sheep are free to roam.

 

Are patou dangerous? 

Wolves in Chamonix, defence dog
Anatolian Shepherd, wearing a defensive collar

The majority of patou are not dangerous. They’re normally enclosed, with the flock, behind an electric fence. So long as you move away from their area, they’ll normally leave you alone. That said, there have been reports of people being injured by loose patou, such as the ones around Pormenaz.

What should I do if I see a patou?

If you see a patou, avoid eye contact and talk calmly to it. If you see a patou in the distance, it can help to call out to it, so not to surprise it. Move away from its area. Do not run, but walk calmly. If the patou continues to follow you even after you’ve moved away, try to put something between you and it (such as a rucksack); this is not a defence, it just reassures them for some reason. If you have a dog, make sure it is on a lead. Never shout or try to hit a guard dog, and do not throw stones at them.

Have empathy

Here’s a tip from a local dog breeder that we’ve found especially useful : try to empathise with the guard dogs. These dogs have been raised to defend their flock against predators. They are often very stressed, and are just trying to do their job. If necessary, they will sacrifice their lives for their flock, which deserves respect. Try to make their lives easier by staying calm, and not retaliating with anger.

Are there guard dogs on the TMB?

We will probably see increasing numbers of guard dogs on the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) trails, as well as other popular routes, such as the Haute Route. They are normally enclosed, and are used to hikers. Don’t be alarmed if they bark at you; just stay calm and move away.

Summary

At Happy Tracks, we’re excited by the repopulation of wolves! We believe they could benefit our local biodiversity, and we don’t believe that they pose a physical threat to humans. At the moment, the future for sheep and goat farmers looks a little bleak, but hopefully they’ll find more affective measures of protection soon. Guard dogs will become more of a common feature, but we can learn to live alongside them peacefully if we try to empathise with them.

How do you feel about the repopulation of wolves in Chamonix / the Mont Blanc region? Leave a comment below!

References

The information in this blog comes from local newspaper articles, anecdotal evidence, and from a meeting we attended at the Maison du Lieutenant. If you have more information that you’d like to share, please leave us a comment or send an email. We’d love to learn more and hear your perspective!

  1. PSU article
  2. This fact was reported in a meeting at the Maison du Lieutenant by Armand Courrioux (armand.courrioux@ccvcmb.fr)
  3. Life Wolf Alps
  4. Life Wolf Alps
  5. This was reported in a meeting at the Maison du Lieutenant by Armand Courrioux (armand.courrioux@ccvcmb.fr)
  6. Le Dauphine
  7. France Info
  8. France Info
  9. This fact was reported in a meeting at the Maison du Lieutenant by Armand Courrioux (armand.courrioux@ccvcmb.fr)
  10. This fact was reported in a meeting at the Maison du Lieutenant by Armand Courrioux (armand.courrioux@ccvcmb.fr)
  11. This fact was reported in a meeting at the Maison du Lieutenant by Armand Courrioux (armand.courrioux@ccvcmb.fr)
  12. Ouest France
  13. Reported in the Habitants de Servoz Facebook group
  14. Life Wolf Alps
  15. See this Wikipedia page
  16. See this Wikipedia page

Charlie

Charlie works as a Content Writer for Happy Tracks. As a child, Charlie visited Chamonix during every school holiday, and she moved here permanently in 2013. She hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc with her family in 2019, and this summer she'll hike the Haute Route and Alta Via 1!

4 comments

  • Janice L Strout

    04/06/2023 at 00:03

    In Florida, USA, the ranchers use donkeys or mules, can’t remember which one, to protect their cows and newborns from coyotes. Would they work in Chamonix?

    Reply

    • HAPPY TRACKS

      04/06/2023 at 07:08

      Hi Janice, thanks for your comment. This is very interesting information! We’re not sure if it would work here, but we’ll ask the experts at the next local meeting. Thank you!

      Reply

  • Rob

    06/03/2024 at 16:25

    I’m not sure about the truth behind on the statement that there has been no wolf attacks on dogs. My dog found a skull remains of another dog that had been eaten, still fresh with flesh on it at Mont Fort between Saint Gervais and Les Touches today. I forgot one have heard various accounts of people having their dogs taken but this is the first time I have seen the evidence. I have seen a wolve on the road outside of saint Gervais.

    Reply

    • Grant and Joel

      06/03/2024 at 17:15

      Hi Rob, thanks for the comment. That’s interesting to hear. In our post, we have not stated that there have been no wolf attacks on pets, just that there have been no confirmed attacks. Whether wolves in the valley have attacked and killed pet dogs is unknown.

      Reply

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