Article written by Antonio Iannibelli and translated by Marco Albertini
The unforeseeable happened after the robin’s song, wild shivers in a cold winter’s night.
At dusk on a freezing cold day at the end of January I found a wonderful deer antler half-buried in the snow. I was taken by surprise seeing just one palm sticking out of the snow. I thought it belonged to a sleeping animal but I was wrong; there was just a piece of skeleton, only bones.
I knew it belonged to the frame of a large adult male. I was enchanted until the robin’s song reminded me it was almost dark and I had to walk for one hour through the wood to reach my car.
While I was walking fast I couldn’t help but let my mind drift back to that very early moment. I could neither leave behind nor escape from the deer’s ghost which occupied my mind during the homecoming journey, the following nights and days.
That buck was certainly killed and eaten by wolves-no doubt about that-but…why did it give up without a fight? I thought something went wrong , I couldn’t stand the fact that it was just “the law of the strongest”. I really needed an answer.
A nine year old healthy strong buck, experienced enough to know and recognize dangers, with a large-built antler to defend itself, can’t end its days miserably torn to pieces and devoured by a pack of wolves.
I ran through its final hours and days of life and I eventually found the solution. Here it is.
I open my eyes a couple of minutes before the alarm clock rang. I get up early like many others time before and I see the light coming into my room through the pane. I stand by the window and I see it, brighter than ever-the majestic moon.
If you want to experience emotions in the wild you have to go out before dawn and come back after the sunset. Once I reach my destination I hide away close to a juniper tree waiting for the new day.
A pack of ten wolves lives in this territory, quite unusual in Italy, where the few packs left are made up of six-eight specimens. I’ve been watching that pack closely for months, every week.
The robin’s song announces the brand new day even this morning, but funnily nothing is moving. A blank icy golden silence reigns everywhere. Even daybreak seems to be late coming and I can’t see any rays of light. A strange kind of magic.
I can’t breathe, I stand still, willingly. I don’t want to break the magic spell. I wait for something to move, a noise or a gust of wind.
Nothing happens. There is no animal and the sky darkens slowly, becoming greyer and greyer. It is true that every single day has a surprise in store but this new day doesn’t even begin. Something extraordinary happens instead.
Something is moving on my right amongst the thin juniper needles. Out of the corner of my eye I notice a slight movement but I’m not sure. I keep waiting, immobile.
Another imperceptible movement makes me close and open me eyelids, I can hardy understand the direction. Something falls on my knees. I’m just in time to realize what it is and then it irreparably vanishes in the air because of the heat of my body. It’s pure white snow.
Yes, that’s it. Today clouds hide the dawn and animals remain under cover in the wood. They foresee snow. One, ten, a hundred, a thousand soft light snowflakes slowly pile up and the ground becomes a vast white veil. But I can’t stay.
Good weather brings back the sun and the blue sky at least and I can enjoy the amazing view of the landscape. I keep wandering around until the end of the day because I hope to see wild animals looking for food.
Fallow-deer, deer, wild boars, roe-deer are all here. There are wolves as well. Each one of them desperately needs food.
Deer can easily feed on tree bark, wild boars can find roots and tubers grubbing under the snow, roe-deer graze amongst leaves and bushes bent by the weight of the snow, fallow-deer look for evergreen plants instead and the ivy which grows on trees is definitely a tasty food for all of them.
Unfortunately the ivy at the bottom of the trees is eaten s fast that quickly there’s no food available. Animals however know very well that snow is not just famine; the oldest specimen reminds the pack not to waste precious energy and to wait for a little while longer.
Today I can stay. The moment daylight gives way to night time is always magic, especially with snow and a mild temperature.
Now it’s dark all around. Night is here and silence wraps everything. Suddenly the silence is broken by something very loud far away in the valley on the right. These noises seem to be shots but they are actually big trees which break and fall because of the snow.
These black hornbeam trees, which live on the northern side of the valley, are often covered with ivy, which retains too much snow so that trunks break. You can hear fireworks but not see their light. Any farmer can confirm that.
Fallow-deer know very well that now it’s time to eat after many days of fasting. The oldest big pack leader raises proudly its antler and walks meanders through the snow, heading right into the middle of the fallen trees with the pack.
Here fallow-deer have been eating for ages, so that they can survive even through the coldest and harvest winter. However some weak specimens starve and die in winter simply because they haven’t enough energy to wait.
It is the natural selection, which also affects wolves and all the other thin small predators. There are no fireworks for hem, but for the living specimens those noises are the signal the famine is going to end.
Even wolves know those sounds very well and they are aware of the presence of the fallow-deer pack. Those wolves tried to capture them again and again, following and waiting in ambush but unsuccessfully.
But wolves can wait longer and it’s so much easier to prey on specimens weakened by hunger. This year however food is scarce even for wolves and this is the reason the pack plans an ambush against the fallow-deer.
It takes place after “the night of the fallen trees”.
At night time the dominant couple leads the pack in the valley and stands still, waiting. Wolves are very poor hunters, they prefer to feed on putrefied carrions rather than risk being injured by the fallow-deer’s palm.
But they become clever strategists when hunger drives them on. The pack moves into a horseshoe formation at the bottom of the big canal, where there are several broken fallen trees.
The dominant couple waits instead for the ungulates to come at the top of the valley.
There are more then ten hungry fallow-deer moving to the valley during the night. They can eat and fill their stomachs at least. Hunger and the presence of the strong clever elderly leader make them unaware of the danger posed by the wolves.
The hidden predators know it won’t be easy but they can count on the experience of the oldest specimens. Everything must be planned in detail in order to feed the all pack.
The last attempts to prey on the fallow-deer failed miserably once because the attack began too early, once because not all the escape routes were blocked, another time because of the inexperience of young wolves but above all because of the unexpected agility of the ungulates which allows them to take long jumps so that they can easily overcome wolves.
Young wolves are restless, waiting for to ungulates to arrive and the signal from the adult specimens.
It’s still dark when a strong smell reaches the wolves’ noses; there’s no light in the wood. Wolves know very well they must attack only when they are as near as possible to the fallow-deer, otherwise the attack will fail again.
In the early hours of the morning they decide the right time has come. Their quarry have their stomachs full of ivy and they are moving slowly amongst the fallen trees. The pack can’t take any initiative. It can only wait for the attack which is late coming.
It can begin only when the dominant couple decides, which is now carefully nosing through the snow. The thick wood makes it difficult to see the prey clearly and they don’t want to ruin everything once more.
Later on a young prey moves to a small fallen trees full of green ivy leaves just where the male pack leader is hidden; the wolf attacks the young specimen in a flash. There’s no hope of surviving, the prey is bitten and killed by the powerful jaws of the wolf and it can only shake its thin legs in vain, trying to find a grip.
The other fallow-deer run away immediately, with no time to coordinate any movements. Even the strong old leader doesn’t run towards the mountain where the hunters are but it heads for the valley without realizing that the snow, which has accumulated in the narrow canal, can turn into a fatal trap.
In the meantime the pack is excited by the breathless escape of the fallow-deer. It succeeds in killing other two preys; a young male runs in the wrong direction exactly where two big wolves are and a tiny adult female collapses into the snow after a desperate leap.
No one follows the final run of the old leader, as he falls in the wet snow. The more he struggles to jump the deeper he sinks helplessly into the snow.
So it’s time to eat even for wolves in the end. The entrails of the three dead quarry are greedily eaten up in a couple of minutes.
But the cruellest fate befalls the strongest and biggest of the fallow-deer, the old chief. The wolves themselves are frightened of the sharpen antler and they are so afraid of the leader they keep away from him.
They aren’t hungry now and so they can wait. All the predators surround the chief little by little and stare at him, astonished.
In the end even the great leader is eaten by the wolves.
This rare time wolves have got luck on their side and the perfect attack lets them capture even the pack leader, because perhaps the fallow-deer didn’t expect such a big compact pack.
In this territory there are not usually abundant snowfalls and wild animals don’t fully know which dangers they can hide. Besides wolves can easily move on the snow thanks to their wide grip of their legs which can exceed 10 cm, while ungulates actually walk on their claws and the grip is so restricted (less than 5 cm) they quickly sink into the snow.
Even if I know all this territory very well and what happens after the fireworks night I don’t fully understand the weird end of the big leader. So I follow the tracks of the wolves and fallow-deer until I find a palm half-buried in the snow. I think the animal is sleeping but when I realize what really happened I begin thinking about the real wild life of our animals.
Then the robin’s song reminds me another day is going to end.