Neither Big Nor Bad, the Wolf Returns to Western Europe
1869: That was the last time a wolf was seen in the Netherlands. Widespread throughout much of Europe in the 18th century, wolves were for all intents and purposes exterminated from there in the 19th century. By the end of World War II, they had disappeared altogether. The “last wolf” in Germany was said to have been shot in 1904.
Large populations of wolves have continued to exist in eastern Europe, in Romania, Poland and the Balkans. As a result of conservationist policies and world politics, the number of wolves has been gradually rising in Germany, France, Sweden and Norway. Earlier in July, the body of an animal that biologists believe is “almost certainly a wolf” was found. The animal had been run over by a vehicle in Luttelgeest in the Netherlands, just about 30 miles from the country’s densely populated North Sea coast.
News reports like this one in the Daily Mail are suggesting that the “big bad wolf” is knocking on western Europe’s door and that it is time to call in the hunters. With wolves now also turning up in Belgium, northern Denmark and off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, there has also been talk, and fear, of wolves coming to Britain. But environmentalists and foresters point out that the return of the wolf is a welcome development.
As the Independent notes, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed things significantly for wolves in Europe. The reunification of Germany led to a “radical policy switch,” with the wolf becoming a protected species throughout the country, including its formerly communist east. Under the 1979 Berne Convention (which most European countries have signed), hunting wolves is prohibited.
The wolf is “at the top of the predatory chain” in Europe, says Vanessa Ludwig, a biologist who monitors the growing wolf population in Germany’s Lausitz region, which is near its border with Poland. In the 1990s, wolves began to migrate via Lausitz. The region — “vast, uninhabited and largely road and path-less wilderness, covered with half-grown pine and birch trees” — had once been used for military training exercises by the occupying Soviet army; German troops now use the area much less frequently.
In 2000, a night-vision video camera filmed a pair of wolves with their cub, a sign that the wolf has returned. An estimated 40 wolves now lives in the region. Roe deer, red deer and wild boar account for the majority of the wolves’ diet. Environmentalists and foresters have welcomed the wolves’ return as they help to restore an “environmental imbalance” by controlling the numbers of deer: an overpopulation of these has meant that deciduous trees have been stripped of their bark and that saplings have been eaten.
Sheep farmers, having kept flocks for decades without fear of predators, have been highly concerned about the wolves’ return to say the least. Last year, some 50 animals were attacked. Farmers have been installing electric fences and are keeping Pyrenean sheepdogs to guard their flocks.
There are now an estimated 250 wolves in France, which has raised the limit on the number of wolves that can be killed per year from 11 to 22. Last year, farmers reported almost 6,000 cases of attacks on other animals including pigs and goats as well as sheep and there has been talk of recruiting “specialist hunters” from the U.S. and Eastern Europe to “keep the number of wolves stable.”
As Ludwig notes, wolves fear humans and usually run on encountering a person. No one in Germany, she says, has been harmed by a wolf.
The return of the wolf represents a triumph of conservationist policies. A species can make a comeback even after being altogether eliminated from a region. The next step should be to figure out how wolves and humans – modern-day Little Red Riding Hoods, their grandmothers and woodsmen — can live together.
Photo from Thinkstock