Dante's Beach, Ravenna
The other morning, my wife Carla was driving home after the school run in her battered old Renault Trafic people-carrier when through the fog she saw what looked like a wolf. It was ambling across the fields, which were covered in white ice.
The wolf was only about 50 metres away, so she pulled over and took a picture, which she texted to the local dog rescue centre. She then followed the animal as it continued on its way, parallel to the road, in the direction of our house. Eventually it vanished in the fog about half a mile from our front door.
‘Yes, it’s a young wolf,’ said the man from the rescue centre when my wife spoke to him on the phone. ‘You can tell it’s a wolf from its tail,’ he explained. Apparently, wolves have tails that are convex and curve down; dogs have concave tails that curve up.
We have got some interesting fauna on the Italian coast. There are badgers, porcupines, green toads, whip snakes, marsh harriers, bee-eaters, nightingales,various types of bat, and owls I call screech owls because of their horror-movie nocturnal cries. But wolves?
When Carla told me that’s what she’d seen, I must admit I was a little sceptical. She can get a bit carried away. For example, she is convinced (and has convinced our six children) that our house is full of poisonous ragni violini — violin spiders — which are so called because they have a pattern on their backs that looks like a violin. In our house, blood-curdling cries of ‘Violino! Violino! Quick! Squash it!’ are common during the autumn spider season. But I do not believe they are violin spiders, mainly because the violin spider is also known as the brown recluse spider which implies something solitary and secretive, whereas our ‘violin spiders’ are all over the place and far from being reclusive.
Nor have I really believed Carla when she has sworn to God — she is a devout Catholic who is not possessed by the Devil as far as I can tell — that she has heard wolves howling at night. And nor did I necessarily believe her that one moonless summer evening when she told me she had been wading through the fields of waist-high corn on the way to the village when she felt something wolf-like brush past her in the pitch-black night.
By the beginning of the 20th century, wolves had been hunted to virtual extinction in western Europe. But in the past three decades, they have made a remarkable comeback. Thanks largely to them being given protected status in the 1970s throughout the EU, they are now everywhere — even in Holland, where a wolf was seen for the first time in modern history in 2015.
Italy was one of the few places in western Europe where wolves had survived throughout, but by the mid 20th century there were fewer than 100 and they were confined to a few isolated areas in the Apennines. No longer hunted down, they started to venture forth from their mountain redoubts. There are now about 3,000 of them in Italy and about 14,000 in Europe as a whole.
Wolves, a source of fear and loathing but also admiration in our collective psyche, have played as central a role in Italian folklore as anywhere. Italian is full of wolf-based idioms such as ‘In bocca al lupo!’ (‘Into the wolf’s mouth’, i.e. good luck), to which you must reply ‘Crepi il lupo!’ (‘May the wolf die’) or more commonly ‘Crepi!’ or else be plagued by bad luck. My youngest son Giuseppe, aged six, had to write in his exercise book for homework only yesterday ‘Ho una fame da lupi’ (‘I am as hungry as a wolf’).
Real Italian wolves, however, I felt sure were confined to the Apennines, which at their nearest point are about 25 miles from where I live — and not roaming around down here in the reclaimed swamplands of the Po Delta. Well, I was mistaken. Carla showed me her surprisingly clear photo of what was obviously a wolf. Wrong colour — grey — for an Alsatian. Too big for a husky. What else could it possibly be but Canis lupus italicus — the Italian wolf or the Apennine wolf, a sub-species of the grey wolf? A descendant, perhaps, of the she-wolf that suckled the abandoned twin babies Romulus and Remus in a cave on the Palatine Hill before they grew up to found Rome.
Indeed, the man from the rescue centre told Carla there is a family of wolves living in the pine forest that lines the coast a mile from our house. Noisy nudists and their numerous sub-species have stolen a long stretch of the beautiful beach from the silent majority, and they spend a lot of time looming in and out of this pine forest stark naked. Would not such a sight terrify any wolf? Apparently not. Perhaps the wolves will one day frighten off the nudists.
We asked our nearest neighbours if they too have seen wolves. Yes, they see them every now and again, they said. They texted us a photo of a dismembered fallow deer they had come across. Was a wolf to blame? They think so.
All of which is a bit scary even though wolves — so they say — steer well clear of humans, which is fortunate given that a single wolf can tear a cow to pieces. I’ve been trying to think of a suitable name for our house. How about Wolf Hall? We can always change it if one day we want to sell.
I worry most about our donkey Peppa, who, being a donkey, is not the happiest of animals at the best of times, especially since I imprisoned her behind an electric fence to stop her devouring anything I plant. She is partial to grape vines, marigolds and rose bushes. No doubt wolves could polish her off in no time at all. But all I can do is wish poor Peppa good luck: ‘In bocca al lupo!’