It was right back close to the start of the pandemic that the town council in Montelupone set up a comune WhatsApp group. Originally it was used solely for passing on Covid-19 information, help and advice to residents of the village while everyone was in lockdown. Gradually, though, the group came to be used for an ever-wider variety of purposes including thunderstorm warnings, pension distribution dates and changes to the school bus timetable. It has also been used to disseminate information on the annual ‘flu jab programme, school closures due to snow, power outages thanks to maintenance work to mains cables, road closures resulting from re-surfacing works, as well as local Covid testing and vaccination programmes, and even for Christmas messages from the mayor.
Regardless of whether the announcements are of relevance to us personally – and in all honesty, many are not – we enjoy the succession of snapshots they provide of the vibrant community we are part of. Just in the last couple of months we have received details of the list of road closures to allow the Giro d’Italia to pass through Montelupone, the days on which anti-mozzie spraying would be carried out, and information on the council-funded programme of children’s activities being run over the school holidays. And more recently, we’ve received the new local ordinance on water usage in light of the extremely hot and dry period we’ve endured since mid-June that has pushed temperatures well above what would normally be expected in August, but without any of the accompanying thunderstorms that normally provide a welcome temperature reset. So it seemed somewhat ironic that, just the day after being informed of rules that until the end of September ban the topping up of swimming pools and washing cars at home, and ban watering the garden except on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays (and then only between 10pm and 7am), we received a warning for heavy storms and strong winds for the following 24 hours. In our experience, the Protezione Civile do seem to err very much on the side of caution, but they did get it bang on this time round. The next evening we were indeed battered by one of the most vicious thunderstorms we have seen since we’ve been here. Luckily, we had hedged our bets a little on this occasion and had at least closed the parasols and brought all the seat cushions in before the storm was due, but we still ended up with plant pots toppled like skittles and garden furniture tossed across the lawn like children’s toys. But we did get the temperature reset we had been longing for, with a drop of about twelve degrees in little more than two hours.
While the only unusual thing about this latest storm warning was its accuracy, the message we received first thing last Monday morning was rather less quotidian. For it warned us, not of storms or road closures or bus cancellations, but of the presence of wolves in immediate locality! The lengthy warning included advice on deterring wolves, such as disposing of organic waste carefully, not leaving food out for animals at night, and – a tad superfluously, I thought – not trying to feed any that happen to come onto your property. And should we actually see any wolves, the official advice is, for the record, to move away quietly but remain vigilant if they are between 50 and 100 metres away, but if they are under 50 metres away, to scare them off by yelling, waving your arms and throwing sticks or stones towards them (not at them) and to retreat slowly while keeping the animals in front of you. Rather incongruously, the message also included a breathless-sounding request to send photographs or videos of any sightings to the council offices as soon as possible, but then recovered its more serious tone with a reminder in red capitals that the wolf is a protected species and that killing one is a criminal offence.
The Italian (or Apennine) Wolf is native to the Italian Peninsula and numbers remained high until well into the 19th century thanks to a cultural respect for the species dating back to Roman times that made killing wolves unacceptable. After all, according to Roman mythology, a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twins who are said to have founded Rome, and wolves were also strongly associated with Mars, the Roman god of war, guardian of agriculture and of the Roman people. Consequently, wolves were never killed for food or used as sacrifices in religious rituals, while the use of wolf parts – such as teeth, fur or fat – was commonplace in Italian folk medicine.
From about the 1850s onwards, however, their numbers declined steeply, principally as a result of hunting, either for sport or to protect commercial livestock. Poisoning campaigns after World War II accelerated their decline further, and by the start of the 1970s, when the World Wildlife Fund for Italy carried out a census, numbers were found to have reached an all-time low of barely 100 animals. And these were confined to a remote mountainous strip of territory extending south from the Sibillini Mountains to the far end of the Apennine chain in Calabria.
At this point, the country regained some of its historical regard for wolves and hunting them was outlawed in 1971. Since then, other forms of protection, at national and at EU level, have been added, including a compensation scheme for farmers who lose livestock to wolves. As a result of such measures, the population has increased continuously ever since and now stands at well over 2000 animals. Thanks to the natural dispersal process whereby the young leave the pack in search of new companions and territories, that population is now also distributed over the entire length of the country – albeit still largely confined to mountainous areas – and has even reached parts of south-east France and Switzerland.
And Montelupone, it would appear. To be honest, we find this quite surprising. Although we are very much in a rural area, it is criss-crossed by a number of busy roads that are distinctly wolf-unfriendly, and prey would seem limited as most farming is arable and, apart from sheep, any livestock is kept indoors. Added to which, we are a good 60 to 70km from the wolf’s mountain habitat. That said, I imagine the extreme weather may have driven them down from the mountains in search of food and water, or perhaps it’s simply the result of population growth. Or maybe it’s just the comune erring on the side of caution again. But then again, I did see some alarmingly big paw prints on the road when I was out running the other day. And it is also perhaps worth bearing in mind that ‘Montelupone’ actually translates as ‘Big Wolf Mountain’, so…