The lakeside cities of Como and Lecco are on the northern boundaries of Milan’s conurbation, with only the Alps constraining further spread. In contrast, if you travel just a few kilometres from the shores of the lake, you find yourself in some of the most remote and mountainous areas of Europe – an area favoured by wild animals including wolves and bears.
Wolves and bears have been making a return to the Alps since the turn of the century after an absence of 100 years. Our area of the Alps is perhaps one of the last to see their return. Wolves were always present in the Apennines but they have recently been spreading up through Liguria and into Piedmont before moving east. Bears instead first re-established themselves in Trentino and the Alto Adige before spreading west. This can explain why recent sightings of wolves have been on the west side of the lake while bear sightings have been, up to now, restricted to the Lecco leg of the lake above its eastern shores.
The first sighting of wolves was made in 2012 when two adults were seen in the Parco Ticino to the west of Malpensa airport. In 2015 a pack of five wolves was identified living in the Valle Albano close to Garzeno which is an area 10 kilometres south west from Gravedona at the top end of the lake’s western shores. It is fascinating to note that such a wild animal could have become established so close to one of the most popular areas for visitors on the lake. Since 2015, this pack may well have multiplied by up to four times.
It is estimated that there may well be between one thousand to one thousand five hundred wolves living nowadays in the Apennines while there are still only a few hundred in the Italian Alps. Numbers and details of wolves in all Alpine countries are recorded by Life Wolfalps EU, an organisation committed to ‘coordinated actions to improve wolf-human coexistence‘. The return of wolves to the Alps has not been without problems given that they had previously been hunted to extinction by farmers seeking to protect their herds of sheep and goats grazing on the Alpine pastures.
A wolf’s diet is almost exclusively carnivorous consuming from three to six kilos of meat per day. This amounts to an average of twenty deer in a year. The Valle Albano is particularly rich in wild deer and is within a territory that provides the wolves access to over 200 square kilometres in which to hunt their prey, extending over the Swiss border. Their other favoured prey are wild boar who, prior to the return of the wolves, met with no natural predators. Wild boar numbers have increased exponentially in recent years and so the return of the wolves does something to restore the ecological balance.
However, for those farmers managing their flocks of sheep and goats on the high alpine pastures, the return of the wolves is more problematic. Firstly wolves have a fearful reputation and stories abound of wolves attacking babies and children. This may have been more likely in the past when children and babies would accompany their parents to live and work in the high alpine pastures. Wolves will always out of preference hunt the weak or the slow but there are no recent reports of any attacks on humans. Secondly there is the fear that in the cold winter months, the wolves might descend from the mountains in search of food as do the wild boar. Again there are no proven reports yet of domestic animals being attacked in the Valle Albano. This may be down to the still plentiful supply of wild deer and also to the suggestion that it is only lone wolves who attack domestic animals. The same is not the case in the Val Cavargna.
The Val Cavargna lies around ten kilometres due north of Porlezza, a town on the eastern end of Lake Lugano. In August 2017 reports came in of thirty goats killed by wolves. In August 2020 there was a further report of ten goats killed out of a flock of sixty left to pasture on the Alpe Stabiello at 1,702 metres above sea level. The wolves were apparently able to separate out this group of ten from the main flock and drive them into the woods where they were killed. This follows on from a further twenty goats killed earlier in the year. The same pack of wolves may also have been responsible for another twenty attacks on ten alpine farms across the nearby Swiss border. It is relatively easy to identify a wolf attack since they usually apply the same method to kill their prey by locking their jaws around the throat of their victims applying up to 100 kilograms per square centimetre of pressure to strangle and sever the carotid artery.
There is a complex psychological relationship between man and wolf as revealed in fables like Red Riding Hood with its contrast between animal cunning and childhood innocence. Stories of the big bad wolf abound as is the case of a particularly large and savage wolf that was said to live in a lair guarding the route between Brunate and Torno. The Sasso del Lupo (the wolf’s stone) is a large granite boulder brought down from the Valtellina by glaciation and left, as the ice retreated, to almost block the route of the ancient Strada Regia to the south of Monte Piatto. The local myth goes that the wolf used this massive granite ‘erratico’ as its lair from which it would jump out at any passing children who had been particularly disobedient or badly behaved – a terrifying prospect if you had to make regular use of this mountain path.
Bear sightings are restricted to the eastern side of the lake in locations that run alongside the Viandante, the 45 kilometre long hiking trail that starts to the the north of Lecco and extends north to Colico. In May 2012 evidence of bears were seen in Somana, an area to the east of Mandello del Lario, where a deer and two sheep had been killed with a further two injured. Bear tracks had been found nearby. At the same time two bears were seen in the area above Colico. In April 2013 the same bear seen close to Mandello was again seen in the Valsassina and identified as a four year old known by trackers as M7 and known to have originated from a pack living in Trentino. It was seen raiding a bee hive and eating bees and honey. The apiarist was compensated for his loss and farmers in the area advised to bring all their animals in overnight. Bear sightings were recorded in the same area in 2015 and again in 2017. This bear hotspot is above Dervio between the hamlets of Premana and Primaluna.
Bears may well present a frightening spectacle when rearing up on their hind legs but there have been no cases of these brown bears inflicting injuries on humans in over 150 years. A bear on its hind legs is only trying to get a better view of what might be threatening it and, once it has identified the threat, will almost invariably retreat. Bears are a protected species like wolves and their numbers and welfare are monitored by an organisation called Life Arctos.
The myth of the man wolf or werewolf is almost universal. Film and fiction have acquainted us with its features with the apparent influence of the full moon causing this shapeshifting phenomenon. The recent discovery on January 29th of naked large footprints crossing the snow-covered roofs of up to six houses in the remote village of Buggiolo was reported in La Provincia (the local paper) as being possibly made by a ‘lupo mannaro’ (werewolf). Strange noises in the starlit night of a full moon with evidence in the morning of these footprints and of pieces of wood thrown down from the rooftops led one local resident, Piermario Cremella, to comment as follows:
‘I was told of the episode by some of my neighbours so I went to take a look expecting to find a logical cause but when I climbed up to the edge of my roof I had to reconsider. I saw these footprints in the snow crossing the roof. They were not made by shoes and on the balcony below, also covered in snow, there were these pieces of wood thrown down from above. I can’t think of a logical explanation and amongst us we began to think the unthinkable.’
Buggiolo, with its tiny population of 160, is in the Val Rezzo, the valley that runs parallel to the Val Cavargna where so many actual wolves have been recorded.
Clearly the remoteness and isolation of our nearby alpine communities does not just favour the return of iconic wild animals like wolves and bears but also the residual belief in some of our ancient myths and fables.