Three wolves, three shepherds

[photo: wolf in sheep’s clothing, free and rebellious. Advert for a restaurant specialising in sheep’s cheese in Rocca Calascio, Gran Sasso, Italy

Wolf in sheep’s clothing, free and rebellious. Advert for a restaurant specialising in sheep’s cheese in Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy


Advocates of hard rewilding say that in Abruzzo wolves and sheep live happily together. But do they? It all depends. As in the Pyrenees, shepherds’ experiences vary: some are happier than others. Paulo was once attacked by wolves. Antonio and Lucia suffer heavy losses. But Giulio runs a very successful farm.

[This article is part of my work-in-progress: The implausible rewilding of the Pyrenees: notes for Britain.]

Abruzzo, Italy, September 2019

Wolves have become iconic since they were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the USA. As a result of their arrival, grazing animals moved, trees grew, and rivers changed courses. Their effect on the landscape is now widely recognised and has contributed to a re-evaluation of conservation objectives.

Wolves may not be present in Britain, but on the Continent they are thriving. In Abruzzo, one and a half hours drive east of Rome in the Apennines, there have always been wolves and sheep. What’s it like living with a wolf at the door? I’ve been talking to shepherds.


Lorenzo and the biggest puffball mushroom I have ever seen

Lorenzo and the biggest puffball mushroom I have ever seen


I am with a group of friends and local guide, Lorenzo Baldi. It is late September, but autumn is still wearing shorts; the beech trees think green is still in fashion. We are walking along a grassy ridge when we see three silhouettes on the skyline. Down below, the main road to Naples is a crush of traffic. The valley on the other side is dotted with cows. At the end of the ridge, the town of Sulmona is clearly visible. So, it’s not that wild. At first, we think the silhouettes are roe deer but when Lorenzo focusses his binoculars, he exclaims “wolves!” A big one with two others following. All the better for being unexpected, it is the first time I have seen grey wolves in the wild. They are trotting purposefully down the slope into the valley and the pastures full of livestock.


Wolves on Monte Rotella, 2100m above sea-level

Wolves on Monte Rotella, 2100m above sea-level


So how do local farmers cope? A few days later we are in nearby Majella, one of three National Parks in Abruzzo, in the tiny village of Decontra.  Marisa Sanelli runs a farm stay here: Agriturismo Pietrantica. Bedrooms in old barns. Organic, mainly vegetarian cooking. Local ingredients. Wolf logo. But the main attraction for me is the chance to meet Marisa’s father-in-law, Paulo, a retired shepherd. Unfortunately, he is too fragile to be interviewed, but the book he published in 2001 is a treasure.


Decontra, 800m above sea-level

Decontra, 800m above sea-level


Paulo was born in 1925. He considers himself lucky to have had any schooling at all. By the age of nine he was looking after sheep.[1] The village was poor. Very poor. When the harvest failed in 1944 and 1945 the whole village was obliged to move to Fara on the other side of Majella and sleep in the cowsheds throughout the winter. They were fed by their hosts in return for their cows ploughing the fields.

“In those days incidents were above all with wolves…

I remember that in December 1954, it was before Christmas, one day I was alone with my sheep and unluckily the wolves reappeared… I was sitting on a pile of stones and all the sheep were around me. Suddenly, about a hundred metres off, I saw a wolf flat on the ground, crawling and making its way on its belly. All at once, eight metres away another wolf appeared, on a different side. But this move didn’t frighten me, I wanted to see what they were up to.

Those wolves were still crawling on their bellies. First of all, they rushed at a nanny goat and began to make passes at it. I hadn’t got a dog. The goat stamped its feet on the ground and the sheep were alerted, they saw the wolves, and all ran away towards me. Immediately those wolves chased after the sheep. I stood up and shouted loudly, but that was no good, and then I began to throw stones and so they retreated.

Unluckily a thick mist came down unexpectedly and I went back close to the sheep; the mist was ever thicker. The wolves came back and set a trap for me. The ground was on a slope and so then one came from above and the other from below. The one which was coming from above, which I hadn’t noticed, got within four metres, but I threw stones at it again and it retreated. At that moment I was scared and began to shout; I could see nothing and hadn’t got a dog. Just at that instant the mist lifted, and I saw the other wolf, which was coming from below, so I understood they had made a trap for me. I shouted again, I threw lots of stones; the mist lifted and so I ran towards the village. I couldn’t see the wolves, but I could feel them following me close by and watching me; I could feel their eyes on me, they were always there.”

On our second day in Decontra, we climb the highest peak in Majella: Monte Amaro. It is like climbing a potato. Many of the peaks here are rounded; many of the valleys inhabited. When I compare Abruzzo with my Pyrenees, it almost seems tame. Yet it is home to fifty Marsican brown bears and around 400 wolves.


On Monte Amaro, 2793m above sea-level

On Monte Amaro, 2793m above sea-level


The other side of the equation is sheep. There used to be millions here, raised for their wool. In autumn they were driven down to Puglia: 250 km along one of the tratturi transhumance tracks, snacking on the move. Each of the three main drove roads was 111m – two motorways – wide. Imagine six motorways linking London to Lincoln by three different routes. Add to that the construction of ‘wool’ churches – the medieval equivalent of motorway service stations – for overnight stops, and the significance of the enterprise begins to unfold.[2] In spring, the sheep were walked back again, stopped around the villages for a fortnight, and then went higher still.


A reminder of the need for the ‘Good Shepherd’, on the pulpit of the Santa Maria Assunta church outside Bominaco

A reminder of the need for the ‘Good Shepherd’, on the pulpit of the Santa Maria Assunta church outside Bominaco


The first great changes started in the 19th century and intensified after the unification of Italy in 1870 when much land in Puglia was sold off for arable farming. By Paulo’s time the sheep were wintering around the village. With the Abruzzo mountains covered in snow from December, there was not enough fodder and sheep numbers had already dropped dramatically. Then, from the 1950s, modern fibres came in and the market for wool shrank again. Cheese became the main product. Now there are only 300,000 sheep in the whole region, mostly on the plains.

The wolf population decreased in parallel until the 1970s when protection first started. At that time there were only 70–100 wolves in all Italy.




Marisa, our host in Decontra, takes me to see her neighbours. She fills in their background. Antonio and his sister Lucia took over the family farm from their father. Neither of them married and they don’t have any children. They are a generation younger than Paulo: Antonio is 66; Lucia 61. Lucia is out, so we talk to Antonio.

The farmhouse is bedecked with pot plants; Marisa – who has come to translate – tells me that Lucia has a fine collection of dolls; kittens are chasing each other up the steps. From outside, it could be a holiday house. But when Antonio leads us through the door on the ground floor it is a different story. Dug into the hillside, the room is dark; the walls are rough concrete. In the past it must have housed animals, their heat warming the house above. “It is very rural, but I love to stay here,” Marisa says. “During the winter, the smell of the wood and the fire…” There is a flat-screen television but everything else has withstood the test of time – and taken a few knocks on the way. This is where Antonio and Lucia live most of the day, only going upstairs to sleep. We slot in around the table, Antonio still in his faded blue overalls and wellington boots.

Antonio tells me that the sheep and goats spend winter near the farm. The young are born from January onwards. Once they have been sold – a week before Easter – the milking and cheesemaking starts. The cheese doesn’t have the necessary certification for official retail sale, but it still gets eaten.

Come summer, the sheep are sheared. Even though they are Merinos, it costs more than the wool is worth. Then they go to higher pastures. Today, it is Lucia’s turn to walk for half an hour up the mountain and spend the day with them. At night, the animals are kept safe in a barn up there but that’s not enough.

Marisa translates, paraphrasing: The wolf is clever, and you don’t see him. When the sheep are counted, there may be one missing. They go back and look for it. Even though there are no vultures here to clean up, the remains of the dead sheep are not always found. Antonio complains that even if they do find the evidence, they will only receive 100€. Not enough, because a sheep represents two years’ work. At the start of the summer Antonio and Lucia had 110 sheep and goats. So far, twelve have disappeared. On average they lose fifteen each year. Even though they have only witnessed two of the attacks this year, Antonio has no doubts. Wolves every time; not stray dogs. Unlike in the Pyrenees, there are no grants to help protect sheep, only compensation when one is killed.


Abruzzo sheepdog on its day off. If there were sheep here it would be making sure we didn’t approach them.

Abruzzo sheepdog on its day off. If there were sheep here it would be making sure we didn’t approach them.


I ask about sheepdogs. Lucia, I’m told, loves dogs but isn’t picky, taking in strays. Usually they have four or five mongrels. They used to have a real Abruzzo sheepdog, complete with spiky collar, which kept the sheep safe, but it mauled a tourist. When it died two years ago, it wasn’t replaced. For Antonio, the problem is people. For Marisa, it is better to lose some sheep than to have a good dog because a good dog gets angry with tourists.

What does the future hold? When Antonio was a boy, each family in the village had around sixty sheep, about 500 in total. Now he and Lucia are the only ones left. And, although they have a niece and nephew who might take over, the youngsters are not interested. They have opted for forty cows and have spent a fortune complying with food safety regulations.

There is only one other sheep farm in the area, in the next hamlet. Nino, the farmer, has 300 sheep and employs a shepherd. It’s always a foreigner, from Romania, Bulgaria, India: no Italians want to do the job. But Nino is 67 and not well. He wants to sell up, but nobody wants to buy. None of his five children want to take over either.

When we finish, no one will continue, concludes Antonio.


Looking down at the Campo Imperatore

Looking down at the Campo Imperatore


A few days later we go to another National Park: Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga. Lorenzo drives the van up to a pass. Over the lip we can see the Campo Imperatore, an immense tongue of pasture at 1500m above sea level. One side is toothed with peaks, including Corno Grande, the highest in the Apennines (2912m) and, appropriately, Dente del lupo – literally the wolf’s tooth. Crossing the Campo, we see a few sheep: I later learn that there are 10,000 here but they must be lost in the vast expanse.


View from Roca Calascio castle

View from Roca Calascio castle


We are staying with Lorenzo’s brother in Rocca Calascio, a remarkable village clinging like a lizard to the cliff under the famous castle. Lorenzo has arranged for us to visit another sheep farmer and this time he does the interpreting. The farm, outside Castel del Monte, is run by Giulio Petronio. Like Antonio and Lucia, he is in his sixties. Like them, Giulio is the son of a shepherd and still living where he was born. Like them, he is surrounded by tourists. But there, the resemblance stops.

For a start the farm buildings are recent. The yard is choked with agricultural machinery. And, although Giulio seems to have all the time in the world to explain his philosophy of farming, his phone beeps so often that I soon become embarrassed.


Early lambs

Early lambs


There are few sheep in evidence because most of them – 2300 – are on Campo Imperatore. He has five shepherds and five other employees. Some help grow fodder and other crops. Others distribute and sell the cheese – he doesn’t deal with wholesalers.

I’ve picked up some other statistics: here in the Gran Sasso National Park there are eighty wolves, as many as in Yellowstone. In one-sixth of the area. But unlike Yellowstone there are some 66,000 sheep, 15,000 residents and 400 livestock farms. Plenty of room for conflict then.

So I ask about wolves. In the last three years, Giulio tells me, he has lost zero sheep to predators.

But first, he wants to talk about wool. He works with the boutique Biella Wool Company. For the Gentile di Puglia, the traditional local breed which has a thick fleece, the value of the wool balances the cost of shearing. And he is experimenting crossing Gentile with Merinos for natural browns that don’t need chemical dying.

He takes us into a sparklingly clean room, almost empty but for a rail on the ceiling which has a series of hooks suspended from it. At first, I don’t understand because I am expecting to see cheesemaking, but it turns out that Giulio has his own abattoir.


Giulio Petroni with his Canestrato cheese

Giulio Petroni with his Canestrato cheese


Then he ushers us into his library. Shelves laden with hundreds of Pecorino Canestrato cheeses ageing comfortably. He makes 10 tonnes a year, mostly from his own milk but also with milk from neighbouring farms. “Instead of speaking two languages,” he says, “we will now speak just one and taste the cheese.” It is excellent. Giulio is one of the biggest producers of this cheese, selected by Slow Food for its authenticity. He also grows Slow Food-recognised solina wheat and lentils, again traditional local products.

His implication in Slow Food has had unexpected rewards. When an earthquake struck the region in 2009, it killed over 300 inhabitants. Everyone here knew someone whose house was damaged. Or worse. Initially the disruption of the local economy was a minor issue, but as the months wore on and the government sourced emergency food from outside, the local economy collapsed. Slow Food stepped in to organise farmers’ markets.

The earthquake also resulted in another innovation. Despite the markets, cheese was still piling up. So Giulio was forced to experiment with freezing excess milk and making cheese later. It worked, and even after the crisis was over, he continued. Which explains why we can watch the cheese being made today, although the sheep don’t produce milk in September. And why the cheese is now available all year round.

I ask: do you need to have so many sheep to break even? No, he replies, most families manage with 500. EU grants represent 70% of their income. Even for Giulio, EU grants are indispensable: 50% of his income.

Giulio has also resuscitated traditional practices. Whereas previously the transhumance went south, now it simply goes downhill. His sheep spend the winter near Pescara at 600m above sea level. But the most important tradition he has adopted is: “El Pastore abruzzese, l’arma bianca nostra – the Abruzzo sheepdog, our white weapon,” as Giulio repeats to everyone who visits. He has twenty-five of them: which is why he doesn’t lose any sheep to wolves.

And what does the future hold? His youngest son, Claudio, now twenty-nine, is ready to take over.


Of course, every mountain, every valley is different; every shepherd has different constraints as well as different values. So, what happens in Abruzzo may not be transferable to the Pyrenees… And there are other interactions to consider, ecotourism being an important one.


[1] Paulo Sanelli (2015) All my dreams have been of Maiella, Abruzzo Edizioni Menabo translated by Diana Bayne from the Italian I mei sogni sono stati tutti sulla Maielle (2001).

[2] Marialuce Latini (ed) 2000 Abruzzo: Along the shepherds’ tracks. Carsa edizioni, Pescara.

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3 Responses to “Three wolves, three shepherds”

  1. Barbara Brown says:

    Very interesting piece – views are very varied in the Pyrenees about Bears & officially there are no Wolves in the central Pyrenees but I have seen them there. Know the central Cominges/ Luchonais part well.

  2. steve says:

    Thanks Barbara. What surprises me about the (few) wolves in the Pyrenees is that the ones that have been tested have come from Italy. It’s not the distance, which is perfectly plausible. But the fact that none of the many Spanish wolves have made the much shorter trip.

  3. Fascinating; great stuff!

More on walking in the Pyrenees

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