In the footsteps of the wolf in Gévaudan

In the footsteps of the wolf in Gévaudan

The shepherdess is lying on the ground, bleeding and headless… The scene may well be a plaster reconstruction, at the fantastic Museum of the Beast of Gévaudan, in Saugues (Haute-Loire), it arouses dread by its realism. These statues and decorations painted by Lucien Gires, a local artist, in a house in the medieval heart of the city, reflect the ambiguous link of Lozériens with their history.

The desire to forget the ravages of the man-eating wolf was succeeded by that of making it the emblem of Gévaudan (former province, in present-day Lozère and south of Haute-Loire). More than one village has thus endowed itself, in recent decades, with statues or routes evoking the terrible years 1764-1767, when a hundred people, often children guarding the cattle, were devoured. When you climb to the Tour des Anglais, in Saugues, which dominates this hilly Margeride, once difficult to access, with rocky chaos conducive to the ambushes of a predator, you cannot help but imagine the beast there. prowl.

The surrounding tourist sites are not lacking in interest, from the old town of Malzieu to the European bison reserve of Sainte-Eulalie. But by visiting the Château de la Baume, in Prinsuéjols, we forget the rich history of the Las Cases family, who still live in the austere granite building, to linger over a simple artisanal sword hanging on the wall, which recalls with which the shepherds protected themselves from ferocious beasts. It is here that King Louis XV’s wolf scouts launched a great hunt.

Similarly, in Mende, how can you visit the cathedral without thinking of the bishop who accused his flock of having deserved this divine punishment for having offended God? Or to enter the new Gévaudan Museum without stopping for a long time in the room dedicated to the beast? And we will not be surprised to find a wolf’s head adorning the large metal footbridge which gives access to the tower of Apcher (Prunières), the only vestige of the fortified castle.

Tourist offices and traders compete in imagination to use the image of the famous canine, whose very nature remains mysterious. If this beast is not as deadly as that of Orléans in the 17th century, it rages for three years, escaping all attempts to stop it. Faced with the greatest battles in history (up to 20,000 men), it changes region and continues its ravages. She doesn’t let herself be caught either by the ambushed hunters, or by the corpses of poisoned dogs, or by the soldiers disguised… as women to bait her!

Saint-Alban, Le Malzieu, Saint-Chély-d’Apcher, Langogne… No village is spared. The hunters may kill dozens of wolves, but the attacks against humans – extremely rare apart from those of rabid wolves – continue.

Endless attacks

Sometimes, one takes courage by learning how Jacques Portefaix and other children repelled the animal in Chanaleilles, with their sticks and their knives. How Jeanne Jouve defended her children with her bare hands near Saint-Alban. Or how Marie-Jeanne Vallet, 20, servant of the parish priest of Paulhac, planted her bayonet in the chest of the beast, putting him to flight.

Finally, in September 1765, François Antoine, the king’s arquebus holder, shot down a 63 kg beast. The wolf is stuffed and sent to Versailles. We cry victory. Alas, in December, the attacks resume… They only stop after the death of a second animal, killed on June 19, 1767 by a hunter, Jean Chastel, in Auvers. After the autopsy, the animal is also stuffed. But he arrives in Paris in such poor condition that he is buried immediately. For lack of remains, we are reduced to conjectures about its origin: perhaps a hybrid or half-breed, of dog and wolf. Wolf lovers may claim that they never attack humans, the historian Jean-Marc Moriceau lists 3,000 attacks against humans from the 15th to the 20th century in France (excluding rabid wolves).

Be that as it may, Gévaudan remains marked forever. In the 19th century, extermination campaigns were launched throughout France, partly to eradicate rabies. The last wolves were killed for bounties in the 1920s. Only a few wandering individuals remained. It is one of them that Albert Pégorier crosses, and kills, on June 20, 1977 in Lozère. This peasant is probably the last Frenchman to have shot a wolf before the 1979 Bern Convention on the conservation of wildlife protects the species.

Now 76 years old, the retiree says: “While going up to the meadow, I discovered a half-devoured bull calf, its entrails taken out by the wolf to eat its heart. The gendarmes issue him a license to carry weapons. One morning, he is walking with the rifle on his back when his two dogs come back to him, howling: “I see a wolf, who wanted to eat my dogs. When he sees me, he turns around. I shoot, with small lead. Nothing ! I put in a heavy pellet cartridge and shoot. Hit in the side, the wolf lies down, gets up and comes towards me, before collapsing. The 50 kg animal, stuffed, has been sitting in his kitchen ever since.

Fatalistic breeders

In the 1990s, wolves from Italy settled in the Alps and then crossed the Rhône, via bridges. The flocks of sheep in Lozère suffered dozens of attacks. Of which nine, in 2022 alone, on the ewes of Mikael Tichit, breeder in Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole. “I lost 40 animals out of 370, he testifies. These losses are compensated, but not the abortions of the ewes nor the refusal to mate with the ram, due to the attacks, nor the psychological damage. »

To sleep near the sheep in summer, and watch over them, he built a hut in the middle of the meadow. But the wolves also watch him, from the edge of the woods, and go on the attack as soon as he is absent. Electric barriers do not deter them. Rémi Chevennement, deputy director of the Cévennes national park, confirms that 80% of the farms attacked were protected (dogs, fences, etc.) To limit their proliferation, the State authorizes the slaughter of 19% of the workforce (174 wolves killed in 2022). “Extensive breeding, with sheep fed on the meadow, is doomed if we do not further limit the number of wolves,” says Mikael Tichit, hoping to influence the future national wolf plan for 2024-2029. La Margeride has not finished with the wolf.

Address Book

Ask about

  • Lozère Departmental Tourism Committee, in Mende. Info. : 04 66 65 60 00;

To visit

  • Gévaudan Wolves Park: a hundred wolves from all over the world in large wooded enclosures, in Saint-Léger-de-Peyre (Lozère). Info. : 04 66 32 09 22;
  • The Day of the Beast (walk, conference), August 24, in Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole. Info. : 04 66 31 82 73.
  • Scenography of Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole: the visitor is immersed in a setting, and screens, evoking the history of the village (the beast, the Resistance, the avant-garde psychiatric asylum once housed in its beautiful pink sandstone castle). Info. : 04 66 31 32 85;

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