By Nick Squires, Rome
Wolves are prowling so close to schools and villages in the mountains of northern Italy that wildlife rangers want permission to ward them off with rubber bullets.
Authorities in Trentino, a province in the Dolomites, have requested permission from the government in Rome for rangers to be able to use rubber bullets if the wolves get too close to inhabited areas.
Wolves are a protected species in Italy and it is only in exceptional circumstances that permission is granted to kill them.
The request was made as photographs emerged of children from an elementary school in the alpine village of Canazei watching a wolf loping across a field just a few hundred yards from their playground.
It appeared to have the remains of a mouflon, a type of wild sheep, in its jaws.
“There’s a wolf living very close to Canazei and we have asked permission from the ministry to use rubber bullets in order to drive it away,” said Michele Dallapiccola, a councillor with responsibility for environmental affairs in the provincial government.
Wildlife experts believe the wolf may be suffering from scabies or mange, weakening its immune system and driving it out of the mountains in search of easier prey.
“That could explain the change in behaviour of the wolf in question,” said Mr Dallapiccola.
“We’ve asked the ministry in the last few days to be able to intervene with rubber bullets,” he said. “We have forest rangers in the area and they would be effective in dissuading the wolves from coming too close to inhabited areas.”
Rangers are also studying the possibility of culling the infected wolf, both to save it from undue suffering and to prevent the spread of the disease to other members of its pack.
“Rome and the EU should intervene quickly before it’s too late,” Leandro Grones, a local mayor, wrote on Facebook.
After more than 40 years of protection under stringent laws, wolves are on the rebound in Italy, as they are in France, Germany and many other countries in Europe.
Last week a large wolf was photographed in the middle of a village in the Italian Alps, in the Piedmont region.
The photograph was taken by a ski instructor who happened to be walking through the village of Entracque at night.
He came across the wolf staring intently through a fence at a domestic dog. The dog was staring back, in an apparent standoff – or at least mutual curiosity – between the canids. After a few moments, the wolf was startled by a noise, and loped off into the night.
Hunting, trapping and poisoning drove Italy’s wolves to the brink of extinction before they were granted protected status in 1971.
The population has since rebounded, and there are now estimated to be 1,500-2,000 individuals roaming the country, with strong populations in the Apennine mountain range and in the Alps.
It was recently revealed that a small pack of wolves is living just outside Rome, the first time the species has established a presence near the capital in more than a century.