Núria. Further along, a marmotte is sitting on a rock watching her four youngsters play. She doesn’t whistle despite my visible-from-a helicopter red anorak, so I sit down, pulling the hood over my head, watching as the youngsters scurry around. Given the date, this must be on one of their first explorations of the outside world. Their mother has her nose in the air, sitting on her haunches like an obedient dog. She is looking at me with her big round brown eyes but she doesn’t move. She ought to be taking more care.
I whisper ‘wolf’ to her. They’ve come back, or at least one has, spotted on these slopes earlier this year, from Italy probably. Marmottes had been absent for millennia until they were deliberately reintroduced in 1948; wolves, absent for a mere century, reintroduced themselves. Perhaps the lack of wolves is one of the factors in the spectacular growth in the marmotte population in the last sixty years.
Marmottes were reintroduced in 1948
Things are due to change, if the American experience is typical. In the Yellowstone National Park the deliberate reintroduction of grey wolves reduced the population of elk, allowing willows to grow, thus creating a habitat suitable for beavers and moose. Everything is up for grabs, as George Monbiot would say, if the proportion of apex predators changes. If more wolves and bears take up residence will shepherds be discouraged? Will sheep disappear? Will the magic wand of trophic cascades turn grass into rhododendrons and then trees? Where do the ibex fit in to the scheme? In the wolf’s mouth?
Of course, it might be just a false alarm.