The Lou Messugo Blog - life in the south of France from a British/Australian TCK's perspective, bringing you French culture, travel on the Côte d'Azur and beyond, expat issues and a little bit of je ne sais quoi all mixed up with a hefty dose of photography.

Wolves in the South of France

Wolves used to be endemic to France but persecution and human encroachment on their habitat drastically reduced their numbers and by 1940 they were declared extinct in France.  However in 1992 a pair of grey wolves was discovered in the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes having crossed over from Italy and the population has been growing steadily since.  There are now thought to be about 300 wolves in France in 20-25 separate packs, spreading further across the country.

wolves at Alpha Parc near Nice France

This resurgence of wolves in France has become a divisive issue between farmers, (notably shepherds) who claim around 5000 livestock are killed annually and environmentalists, who believe farmers need to adapt their methods in order to live alongside wild wolves.  The public is firmly on the side of the wildlife conservationists (for now).  Wolves are protected by the Bern Convention (1979), though a handful can be “culled” annually, but there are increasing demands for the protection to be lifted from mountain areas and even national parks, where it is claimed the wolves threaten biodiversity as well as livestock.

Alpha Parc loups Mercantour

The whole debate about wolves and their complicated presence in the French countryside is excellently explained at Alpha Parc, a wildlife park where wolves live in semi-wild conditions, on the edge of the Mercantour National Park.  We recently visited to find out more about this enigmatic and contentious animal.

Alpha Parc Mercantour entrance

Alpha Parc is located in the mountains, at 1500m altitude, in Alpine forest protected by national park status, next to the beautiful Boréon river.  Surrounded by higher peaks, you feel a thousand miles away from the coast and yet it’s only an hour from Nice and the buzz of the French Riviera.  The park consists of two sections:  firstly having crossed an attractive covered bridge you arrive in an area with a café, shop, toilets, picnic tables, a playground, a mini petting farm and 3 small cinemas.  The wildlife park is separated by a covered passageway and no eating, drinking or smoking is permitted once in this area. 

Alpha Parc covered bridge pont de cerise

On arrival you are met by a member of staff who explains the layout and how the park works.  The idea is to watch 3 short audio-visual presentations before going to see the animals in order to have a better understanding of the context, though you are free to do what you want and the films are not obligatory.  They are in French but you can get headsets for other languages at the ticket office and I highly recommend taking the time to watch the films as they are excellent and thought provoking.

Alpha Parc Mercantour near Nice

The films with 3D holograms are shown in restored old cow sheds, kitted out to look like the homes and offices of the different people presenting their point of view on living with wolves.  In order to fully understand the implications of wolves returning to the wild, you meet Bastien the hunter, Jean the scientist and Auguste and Marie, sheep farmers.   You are left to make up your own mind and it’s certainly not a straightforward issue. 

Alpha Parc audiovisual presentation

Having watched the presentations it’s an uphill walk to the wildlife area.  There are 3 packs of wolves at Alpha Parc and it must be stressed that it is not a zoo, the animals live in wild conditions in forested enclosures of up to 3 hectares so it is not guaranteed that you will see any animals. There are feeding sessions a couple of times during the day at the different packs so to be sure not to be disappointed it may be worth checking the times by phone beforehand (this information isn't on the website).  We didn’t do this and just got lucky!

Alpha Parc enclosures

Each pack lives in a separate area and there are lookouts/hides to watch them from.  There is also a cabin with information on the habitat, life and behaviour etc of the wolf where keepers give talks at certain times of the day.  The majority of the park is steeply hilly and the paths are not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs (though it is possible for people with reduced mobility to visit the first area and get to one of the three packs of wolves).  Pushchairs can be left in a storeroom in the café and baby carriers are available to hire if needed.  Between the second and third pack you can walk direct or take a detour along a discovery trail where plants and trees are labelled.  If you are pressed for time or young kids are likely to grow tired I would suggest taking the direct route as the nature trail isn’t anything special. 

wolves at Alpha Parc Mercantour National Park France

There’s something inherently scary about wolves.  It’s not just that they’re dangerous wild animals, after all hippos kill more people in Africa than any other wild animal but they don’t come across as frightening. Bears are big and dangerous but look cuddly.   So what is it about wolves? Is it their thin yellow eyes that send shivers down the spine, or is it that they often represent evil in myths and fairy tales?   (Though in stark contrast the image below shows a rare example of a myth involving wise and kind wolves!)

sign in Alpha Parc

Is it their haunting howl or association with the terrifying werewolf?  Probably a combination of all of these but having seen them peacefully lounging around in their natural habitat, admittedly not hunting or feeding, these wolves looked to me pretty much just like their modern descendent, the domestic dog and not scary at all.  I don’t suppose shepherds feel this way and undoubtedly children will go on being afraid of the “big bad wolf” but a visit to Alpha Parc puts a lot of this into perspective and leaves you contemplating the complicated issue of how to manage their growing presence in France.

mountains near Alpha Parc

Alpha Parc is excellently done, combining education and fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it as a great day out from the Côte d’Azur for the whole family.  It's a beautiful drive mostly following the Vésubie river through dramatic gorges which in itself is worthwhile and at this time of year the autumn colours are absolutely stunning.

autumn drive to Alpha Parc

Alpha Parc is ten years old in 2015 and to celebrate they are offering free entry to all children born in 2005.  There’s still time to make the most of this offer, just don’t forget to take ID with proof of age.  I hear it’s pretty magical to visit in the snow.  On a practical note you can take a picnic and either eat it outside the park by lake Boréon, watching the trout jump, as we did, or inside at the enormous picnic tables. 

Alpha Parc picnic area

Once you’ve eaten there are lockers to leave your picnic bag in so as not to carry food and heavy bags around inside the animal area.  You can of course eat at the café too.  Don't forget the park is at 1500m altitude which means it is significantly cooler than the coast, so bring appropriate clothes and sturdy footware (the paths are rocky).  For more information on special events such as birthday parties and being a keeper for the day, and directions to get there, check the website (mainly in French, limited sections in English).  

wolves in France

Alpha Parc wolves near Côte dAzur

Would you like to see wolves at Alpha Parc?  What do you think about their return to France?

 

Why not PIN this for later!

wolves at Alpha Parc near Nice French Riviera

 

ANIMALTALES

 

 

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Comments

  • Guest
    Globalmouse Monday, 30 November 2015

    This is so interesting and it's great that the wolves weren't extinct and are having something of a revival. Your photos are great and it's so interesting to learn about the history of them in France. I would love to visit. Thank you for linking up to #GlobalKids

  • Guest
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} Wednesday, 11 November 2015

    Alpha Parc looks like such a great excursion. I've decided that I like sanctuaries better than zoos. even though you're not guaranteed a sighting. It sounds like the movies aim to give a balanced view of the interaction between wolves and humans which seems very fair.

  • Guest
    Gillian Travers Saturday, 31 March 2018

    I agree. Zoos show animals in total captivity.
    At Alpha, humans witness natural behaviour in a semi wild environment, which has got to be good.

  • Guest
    chickenruby Monday, 09 November 2015

    what beautiful animals they are and lovely photographs, it's great that they give you so much information on the project

  • Guest
    Phoebe Monday, 09 November 2015

    Yes it's definitely really well thought out.

  • Guest
    Priya Friday, 06 November 2015

    Beautiful photos and Alpha Parc looks lovely... how exciting to see the wolves lounging around like that totally in their element!

  • Guest
    Phoebe Monday, 09 November 2015

    It really was lovely Priya, they looked so healthy and unstressed.

  • Guest
    Gretta mumsdotravel Friday, 06 November 2015

    Wolves are beautiful and I'd love to visit this park to see them. I remember when they were released in Italy. This is a really interesting post to read.

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    How interesting that you remember wolves returning in Italy. Thanks for your lovely words Gretta.

  • Guest
    Rosie @Eco-Gites of Lenault Friday, 06 November 2015

    What an excellent post, Phoebe and Alpha Parc seems to be going about the wolf issue in just the right way by educating people to understand the wolves and their lives as they certainly do have a bad image in the minds of many people. I was also going to mention the Yellowstone wolves but Kriss beat me to it - there's a video worth watching and I'll see if I can find it. I would be terrified to meet a wolf head on whilst out in the mountains but like you say, the chances of that happening are so slim. It might however make me think twice about taking Saari for a walk off the lead as she looks so wolf like I could see her giving local hikers a heart attack! Thank you for adding our first wolves to #AnimalTales :)

    Here's the video - How Wolves Change Rivers - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    Thanks Rosie, you're right Saari does look very like these particular wolves. I'll take a look at the video when I get a mo!

  • Guest
    Rosie @Eco-Gites of Lenault Monday, 09 November 2015

    Your wolves get a special mention on Animal Tales tomorrow :)

  • Guest
    Ickle Pickle Thursday, 05 November 2015

    I think they are such beautiful animals. Your photos are stunning. I would so love to see them. Kaz x

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    Thank you! They're not hard to photograph when calmly lazing around like this.

  • Guest
    Catherine Thursday, 05 November 2015

    You certainly find some amazing things to do Phoebe. Fascinating blog and great photos.

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    We've been there before Catherine but in our first summer here when the kids were 2 and 7 so it was definitely time to go back and they both enjoyed it again.

  • Guest
    Oana79 Thursday, 05 November 2015

    Wolves have a similar turbulent existence and history in Romania. I do see both sides of the debate and although I would never vote for a life to be terminated, I understand the challenges the farmers face now.xx

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    Interesting to hear that it's similar in Romania, thanks for adding that Oana.

  • Guest
    Sarah Bailey Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Wolves are such beautiful creatures - what an amazing place to go and see them as well, so good they are trying to keep them alive and well and free from danger. x

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    It's a really great park Sarah with the right balance between education and action.

  • Guest
    cass Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Lovely story!

    Wolves are beautiful creatures aren't they?

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    Yes they certainly are!

  • Guest
    Ersatz Expat Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    What a wonderful sanctuary. I would love to go. The issue itself is complex but the animals are beautiful.

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    Perfectly summed up Ersatz Expat. :)

  • Guest
    VaiChin Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Sounds like you had quite the adventure with the wolves. Were you able to get really close?

  • Guest
    Phoebe Friday, 06 November 2015

    I took these photos from a hide about 10 metres from the animals. They were very immobile and didn't pay us any attention but had they felt like it they could have come to about 2 m away.

  • Guest
    Richard Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    I hope they don't join the wild boar in your garden. You'd better keep a sharp lookout.

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Now that would be quite something Richard...

  • Guest
    liz lord Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    http://www.alpha-loup.com/calendrier.php - do check the calendar out before heading North - there are quite often festive season events - and igloos built for mid February. It is stunning up here in the Mercantour at the moment!

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Thanks for this Liz, the igloos sound fun!

  • Guest
    Kara Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    What an amazing story that they have come back. My husband and son adore wolves and we would love to see them in their natural habitat

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    It's heartening to hear of a species making a comeback isn't it? Book a holiday at Lou Messugo Kara and bring your husband and son to see them!!

  • Guest
    Sonia Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    Wow! Such beautiful creatures. I crew up with German Shepard dogs and they always reminded me of wolves :)

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    I agree that these wolves in particular look very like German Shepherds.

  • Guest
    Dean of Little Steps Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    I do love wolves! There's just something haunting about them. Beautiful creatures too. But I do understand why some farmers think they are a pest, especially if they kill their livestock. Would love to visit this place too! #animaltales

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Haunting is good adjective to use to describe wolves I agree.

  • Guest
    Jen Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    I find wolves fascinating, but not scarey. I think that as they returned on their own, they should be allowed to remain

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Interesting that you use fascinating rather than scary....

  • Guest
    http://Lauren Belle Du Brighton Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    Some gorgeous photos here, wolves really are magnificent animals aren't they? I think they should be there, in their natural habitat!

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Thanks Lauren, the are beautiful and we were lucky to get so close for these photos.

  • Guest
    Erica Price Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    I find it difficult to believe that they really threaten biodiversity. I'd think they'd increase it and help keep on top of large herbivore numbers which can be a problem for farmers and habitats alike - it's important to have an apex predator and that's something that is a problem in parts of the uk.

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    I completely agree with you Erica, I find this a hard argument to swallow too.

  • Guest
    kriss macdonald Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    My son is in love with wolves so oh boy do we need to try and visit here some time. He doesn't just have wolf cuddlies but also lots of books on wolves. In the US wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone national park in the mid 90s. It's had a massive and positive cascade effect on the eco-system there.

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    It's good to hear the reintroduction of wolves in the US has had a positive effect. When are you booking your holiday at Lou Messugo Kriss?!!

  • Guest
    Helen Neale Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    What a lovely post. I think wolves are wonderful and beautiful animals. I'm on the wolves side as well.

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    Thanks Helen! I'm definitely with the wolves too.

  • Guest
    Coombe Mill Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    They do scare me, as a lover of the South of France I'm not keen to see them there! However contained in a park with plenty of space and natural habitat I think it would be great, this park looks amazing and such stunning scenery too #AnimalTales

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    They are more afraid of humans than we are of them, I doubt you'd ever actually see one in the wild Fiona.

  • Guest
    Stella Lee @Purfylle Tuesday, 03 November 2015

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the resurgence of wildlife thought to be extinct. I'm on the wolves side and understand that farmers will always have a different view of something that steals their livelihood. I'm just glad I'm not the one who has to make the decisions to maintain a balance between the two.

  • Guest
    Phoebe Wednesday, 04 November 2015

    I'm glad I don't have to make the decision too as it's always going to upset some people. I always gravitate to the environmental/conservationists pov but farmers are very powerful in France and upsetting them can cause big problems!!

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