Wolves became extinct in England in 1486 and in Scotland in 1743 but in France not until possibly as late as 1937. Some reports say that the last one was killed in 1920 but wolves were almost certainly present in Poitou Charentes well into the 20th century, so probably died out there between 1920 and 1930. The reason that Poitou Charentes along with Limousin and Aquitaine were the last stongholds of the wolf was due to a lack of major roads and railways which sliced through the wolves’ territories and disrupted their hunting and breeding.
Wolves never became extinct in Italy and it is from this source that the repopulation began quite naturally. It was not the product of releasing populations into the wild as for example with fish eagles in the Scottish islands, or of escapes from zoos which, for example, accounts for wallabies now living in parts of England. Wolves first came over the border in 1987 and a population was established in the department of Alpes Maritime at the Mercantour National Park.
Since that time there has been a slow and steady increase in numbers and distribution. The latest figures I can find are for 2010 and the estimate is that there are about 180 wolves in France divided up into approximately 29 packs.
In 2012 sightings have been reported from 19 departments and these are 04,05,06,07,09,12,25,26,38,39,48,66,70,73,74,81,83,84,and 88. There is also a report of a possible sighting in department 46, Lot, near to Cahors, which is not so far from Poitou Charentes.
This spread is welcomed by some but not by others. Sheep farmers are understandably not the greatest supporters of wolf recolonisation. However the wolf is a protected species under the 1993 Berne Convention so it is illegal to hunt, trap or set bait for them. Quite a lot of sheep do get taken by wolves. Recently about 4,500 were taken in one year. To put that into context there are about 700,000 sheep in total in France. Farmers are compensated at above the market price for any sheep lost. The French government spends around 7 to 8 million euros each year in compensation and in processing and verifying claims. One has to weigh against this the benefit in tourist trade with naturalists and photographers visiting areas where wolves can now occasionally be seen. Last year I went all the way to SE Poland because there was a chance of seeing wolves along with bison, brown bears, lynx and much more. I did not see any of them but did see plenty of footprints of all these animals and I did very much enjoy that part of Europe.
Wolves will eat a great variety of food. In the alps they will eat mouflon, chamois, sheep and goats. As in many countries, wild or domestic ungulates (deer,sheep, goats, wild boar etc) in fact represent 75-85% of the diet throughout the year. Marmots, hares, foxes, martens, moles, voles, squirrels, mice, blueberries, fruit, rowan, rose hip, caterpillars and grasshoppers are also consumed and remains appear in their faeces. They will also take carion and garbage, especially these wolves which have originated from Italy and are partial to left over Pizzas. Given that their diet encompasses this wide range, it is entirely possible from a food point of view that they could colonise areas such as Poitou Charentes. If their rate of increase and dispersal remains the same as it has since the 1980’s then I would predict that they may be with us by 2040.
To find out more about wolves in France there are several good websites you could visit.
FERUS this covers wolves, bears and lynx; http://www.ferus.fr/a-propos-de-ferus/association
Wolves in the French Alps; http://ukwct.org.uk/files/education/WPEd39-wolves-in-the-french-alps.pdf
Mercantour National Park; http://www.alpha-loup.com/anglais/accueil.php
Wolves in the Massif Central http://www.carnivores-rapaces.org/Loup/populations/massifcentral.htm
The UK Wolf Conservation Trust http://ukwct.org.uk/ (This is a very interesting site and well worth a look, you can also download their magazine which if you are into wolves is good to look at.)