Running with the pack

PAULA GOODYER
Last updated 13:38 07/10/2013
Wolf Standard
Rick Stevens
WHAT BIG EYES: A wolf at Les Loups du Gevaudan. Photo:

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It's not every day you lock eyes with a wolf that stares at you from the shade of a nearby tree.

But here in the sparsely populated Lozere region of southern France there's a place where you can spend hours gazing at wolves.

Called Les Loups du Gevaudan, it's a 25-hectare reserve carved out of rugged wilderness and it's home to about 100 wolves living in semi-freedom.

They include five different subspecies of wolf - Polish, Mongolian, Siberian, Canadian and Arctic wolves, all of them hunted in their native countries.

There's a limit to how close you can safely get to a bunch of wolves, even when they're as content as these animals seem, so there's a secure fence between them and the viewing platforms around the wooded reserve.

We set off behind our guide, who lets rip with a convincing wolf-like howl as he tosses pieces of raw mutton over the fence.

Eight wolves appear through the trees to retrieve them and show surprisingly good manners - no snarling over the scraps.

They are stunningly beautiful and despite having their meals delivered rather than hunting moving prey, they look lean and healthy.

The fence between us and them is reassuring, but not too intrusive. And because these wolves are in a natural setting, there's still a sense of being close to them as you wander around the reserve watching them do what wolves in the wild do.

They lope, they doze, they play, they nuzzle each other. You just don't see them hunting dinner - that job is outsourced to the local abattoir.

The reason all these wolves from around the world now live in Lozere is thanks to French naturalist Gerard Menatory, who opened the park to the public in the 1980s - partly as a way of getting humans to appreciate wolves and to improve the ugly reputation wolves had acquired in this area.

Back in the 18th century a series of gruesome attacks on almost 100 people - mostly local women and children whose throats were torn out - was blamed on a huge wolf that became known as the "Beast of Gevaudon".

Not everyone was convinced a wolf was the real culprit however, and the "Beast" inspired different theories and dozens of books on the killings, including one by Menatory, who believed the true killer was a hyena that had escaped from a private menagerie.

Others have suggested that the killer - or perhaps killers - were one or more hybrid wolf-dogs trained to attack by local noblemen. (The 2001 French horror movie Brotherhood of the Wolf has an even more bizarre twist on this story.)

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But back to the well-behaved wolves in the reserve. Being so close to these animals is sheer delight and when the guided tour is over, you're free to spend more time walking around and watching them.

Although the wolves were the main reason we came to Lozere, they're not the only attraction here. The reserve is on the edge of the Cevennes National Park, a wilderness of wooded hills and valleys with a history as dramatic as its terrain.

It's now a destination for hikers, but it once provided a refuge for Protestants escaping persecution in the bloody religious conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In World War II, it hid Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and was used as a training ground for the French Resistance.

If you prefer exploring cobbled lanes and markets in mediaeval villages, Lozere and the neighbouring Aveyron area are good places to do it - this landscape is dotted with ancient villages, but generally off the tourist trail.

And while you're unlikely to see them, wild wolves are making a comeback here. Although hunting had wiped out these animals by the 1930s, they began reappearing 20 years ago when a few Italian wolves strayed over the border into France.

Their numbers have since grown to an estimated 250 or more, mostly in the Alps, but some have been sighted in Aveyron and Lozere.

Although wolves are now protected, with attacks on livestock increasing, the French government recently authorised the culling of 24 wolves.

The writer and photographer travelled at their own expense.

GETTING THERE Fly to Singapore and then to Paris (14hr); see singaporeair.com.

Hop has a fare for about $238 return including taxes for the 85-minute flight from Paris Orly to Rodez. Les Loups du Gevaudon is at Sainte Lucie in Lozere, Southern France - about two hours' drive from the airport at Rodez, the capital of the Aveyron region.

STAYING THERE There are self-contained cottages at St Lucie starting at €67.50 ($110) a head for two nights.

Hotel accommodation is available in the village of Marvejols, a short drive from St Lucie, as well as in Rodez.

SEE + DO Admission to the park is €7.50 ($12.25) for adults and €4.50 ($7.35) for children. After the guided tour, you are free to wander around the perimeter of the park to have a look at the wolves.

MORE INFORMATION loupsdugevaudan.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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