If the lieutenant de Louveterie sounds like something from medieval literature, there’s good reason. The order of French wolf hunters was commissioned by the emperor Charlemagne (yes, the Charlemagne) in the year 813 AD. Today, Wolf Lieutenants still work in France to surveille animal populations, preserve healthy ecosystems, and eliminate dangerous or harmful species.
Is it the most badass job ever? That’s a tall order, but the Louveterie are in the running.
Back in the Day
Emperor Charlemagne (aka, Charles the Great; aka, the Father of Europe) founded the Corps de la Louveterie for “eradicating” pests. In particular, they really wanted “the most harmful of all” animals off the landscape—wolves.
Then as now, wolves were mythologized as deceitful, cruel, and diabolical. France’s predominantly rural communities relied on their livestock to survive, and the wolves threatened both these animals and the wild animals people hunted for food.
By the beginning of the ninth century, Charlemagne decided to get organized.
As all good emperors do, he owned thousands of rural estates or “villas” across France and Italy, some of which spanned tens of thousands of acres. He instituted laws governing how the stewards of these villas would manage agriculture, employees (aka, peasants), and animals. Among these laws were the Capitulare de Villis, a list of 70 articles describing in great detail how the stewards were to run things.
In Article 69, Charlemagne directs his managers to track and eliminate the local wolf population:
“They [the stewards] shall at all times keep us informed about wolves, how many each of them has caught, and shall have the skins delivered to us. And in the month of May they are to seek out the wolf cubs and catch them, with poison and hooks as well as with pits and dogs.”
In 813 AD, Charlemagne organized even further, mandating that each of his stewards employ two “wolf hunters” or, in French, louveterie. This is where the modern-day Louveterie see their beginnings.
Louveterie were expected to send the wolf skins to their superiors, but they were exempt from military service and were given a portion of the grain harvest.
The Louveterie used whatever means were at their disposal to kill as many wolves as they could. They used dogs (mainly mastiffs and hounds) along with traps, poisons, bladed weapons, bows, and slingshots. They also captured and killed wolf pups in their dens.
Despite the Louveterie’s best efforts, wolves remained in France until the beginning of the 20th century. France still had one of Europe’s largest wolf populations at the end of the 18th century, but by 1882 their numbers were beginning to dwindle, according to historian Jean-Marc Moriceau.
The last reward for killing a wolf that had attacked a human was granted in 1896, and the last time that a bounty was placed on a wolf was in 1927, in the region of Cantal, Moriceau reports.
The Louveterie were abolished and reconstituted several times throughout their history, but their function remained largely the same. Appointed by the king, this group of expert hunters worked to keep their countrymen—and their livestock—safe from the wolves that lurked in the forests and mountains of France.
From Wolves to Boars
The Louveterie are still active today, but their primary target has changed. Wild boars are now the country’s most pressing threat, and are found in the same places wolves threatened medieval peasants 1200 years ago.
The boar population has exploded in recent years, according to a July report from The Times of London. Ecologists estimate the boar population to be around 2 million, causing agricultural damage upwards of $67.5 million each year.
In some places, the Louveterie have been called in to help slow the exploding populations.
The Louveterie work on a volunteer basis as officials of the French state. They are “responsible for the slaughter of wild animals causing damage to crops or posing a risk to the population in terms of public safety or health security,” according to the French Government.
Rather than special grain privileges, Wolf Lieutenants receive special hunting privileges as well as admittance to France’s oldest surviving institution (if you don’t count the Catholic church). But most of all, the Louveterie see themselves as public servants.
“This is doing something for the community. It is destroying a nuisance,” Marilys Cinquini told The Times on a boar-hunting expedition this summer.
By day, Cinquini, 51, is a secretary at a nearby nuclear research establishment. By night, she’s a boar hunter, outfitted with a bolt-action rifle and thermal optics. She also hunts from a car, even though the technique is prohibited for sport hunters.
The Louveterie may be better equipped and pursue less dangerous quarry than their medieval counterparts, but the job still has its risks.
Another member of the Louveterie, Michel David, told The Times he was once charged and cut by a 200-pound male boar during a hunt.
“There was blood everywhere,” he said. “They had to send a helicopter for me.”
On another hunt, he was called in to the heart of Marseilles, where he shot a boar on one of the city’s main roads.
The Louveterie don’t only hunt boars. As in the United States, the wolf population has benefitted from new protections, and the Louveterie are still called in to fulfill their ancient mandate. But, if their latest newsletter is any indication, pigs are their primary concern.
One article warns hunters about Aujeszky’s disease, a viral infection that attacks a boar’s nervous system but that can also infect hunting dogs. Another provides an update on the African Swine Flu and assures readers that France is remaining vigilant even though no cases have been detected in the country.
The Louveterie are not immune from controversy. In 1879, for example, segments of the French Government threatened to suppress the organization because, in the words of one journalist, the hunters were “incompetent” and “inadequate.”
More recently, a May profile of the organization published in Paris Match points out that some French sport hunters don’t like the fact that the Louveterie kill potential game animals.
“Some hunters are angry with us because they think we are stealing their game,” Cinquini told the Parisian magazine.
But the Louveterie have been on the farmers’ side since their inception 1,200 years ago, and they aren’t about to change their allegiance now. As wild boars continue to ravage farmland, Cinquini and her fellow Wolf Lieutenants will no doubt do what they’ve always done: hunt dangerous and destructive animals for the good of their communities.
Feature image of France’s original Wolf Lieutenants.