The greatest challenge for living with wolves rests within the human mind


I’ve come to expect, whenever I have looked at the situation of large carnivores in continental Europe, that there is some pushback as the wolf, in particular, is increasingly spreading out, and expanding its distribution range. This is in the nature of wolves, their territoriality in securing food, their social behaviour and dispersal, are the intrinsic mechanisms naturally regulating wolf density. What has to be added to this is the human factor that limits the wolves’ ability to thrive, and to distribute where it is not tolerated, in spite of the wolf being strictly protected. It’s a trade-off in land occupation amongst species. As a significant predator, the presence of wolves creates an exclusion space around their dens, other wild mammals living in fear of encroaching into that space. We humans would also at one time have been fearful of the wolf, but as we became more and more the exceptional species, our ability to remove ourselves from the threat of predation has meant that our exclusion space, our zones of intolerance, also expanded. As our territorial gains advanced, that expansion often led to the extirpation of wolves, resulting in the wolf disappearing from Britain, Ireland and the central and northern European countries (1). That the wolf survived into the twentieth century in a number of European countries, such as in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Finland, and more numerous populations in Eastern Europe, is why this range expansion now across Europe has been able to happen, leading to a return of the tensions when wolves compete with humans for the space that they lost to us. In the statutory reindeer herding areas in Scandinavia, the conflict space is based on zero tolerance, a privileging that is a step too far (2).

An article last month surveyed the tensions confronting some member states in the EU that are feeling pressure from their farming communities to weaken the strict protection given to wolves under the European legislation of the Habitats Directive, so that there is a measure of what in effect would be population control (3) and which the Directive doesn’t allow (see sections 11.2, 11.3, III.1.2 and 111.2.2 in (4)). It should be noted that there are some countries in the EU that have complete or partial exemptions from strict protection of the wolf, but have at least some regulation on the extent and means of legal killings, such as Estonia, Finland, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Spain (5). However, the article records the discontent in France and Sweden (see my take on this (6)) as well as in Germany, where strict protection is required. Usefully, this article has two animated graphics that plot the spread of wolves in Germany and France between 2003 and 2017 (3). My rough count from the graphic gives an increase from one to over 40 wolf packs as they spread west in Germany during that time, the latter figure confirmed at 41 in official monitoring (7). In the case of France, there are new centres of wolf concentration up and down a westward front across France as the wolf has moved away from the French Alps. This, along with the current distribution of bears and lynx in France is mapped by the National Office of Hunting and Wildlife (8).

A betrayal of the legacy of concern

Italy is also experiencing this tension from its rural communities, with pressure to replace the national wolf plan from 2002 (9) with a new version that would sanction derogations of up to a maximum of 5% - over 60 wolves - to be legally killed every year, in spite of the fact that hundreds of wolves are already killed by poachers using rifles, poison baits or traps (10,11). As evidence of the latter, a project set up by Italy wildwolf to monitor wolf deaths last November found in its first six months that 46 of 53 deaths were from human causes (12). It is often a slaughter with extreme prejudice. A partially skinned wolf was found last April hanging by its feet from a road sign in Tuscany, a hotbed of persecution, a placard tied above it as a protest (13,14). Most reports of this incident voluntarily censored themselves by showing little of the ghastliness, but a comment piece a few days afterward by Mariangela Corrieri of a Florence based animal welfare organisation showed the full scene, Mariangela saying that it was “practiced by inhumane, barbarous men who cannot distinguish good from evil, beauty from horror”(15).

Dispute for and against that 5% derogation has led to endless delays in adopting a new wolf plan in Italy (16) leading to a policy vacuum where persecution of wolves as a means of protest continues, with two dead wolves hung from a road sign a few weeks ago (17) and the body of a wolf found hanging on the back of a bus stop only a few days ago, its skull smashed in with a shovel or fork (18). It means little to these rural communities that there is a website funded by the Ministry of the Environment and Protection of Landscape and Sea, and backed by Italian agriculture confederations, that provides guidance on how farmers can protect their livestock from attack by wolves (19) that studies have shown that lethal predator control is not effective in reducing livestock losses, and so maybe it is more about instinctive prejudice rather than protection of their livestock, but then often rural communities do themselves little favour when they are slow or resistant to implementing non-lethal protective measures (16,20-23). I wonder how sated of their bloodlust those wolf persecutors are, when to avoid detection they seem to use the cover of dark to stage their gruesome trophies and are thus denied the childish show-off behaviour of smiling as they are photographed triumphantly with their kill (24,25).

In a true sense, this is a betrayal of the legacy of concern that faced Italy after it’s Alpine and Northern Apennine populations were lost through hunting over the first half of the twentieth century (26). Only a relatively small population was left, on the verge of extinction with the consequent loss of its distinct genetic heritage, in 10 locations spread out between the Sibillini to Sila Mountains. Given this parlous state, the wolf was taken off the listing of harmful species and its hunting banned in 1971 by way of a Ministerial Decree (Decreto Ministeriale 23 luglio 1971) (26,27). This was before there were any supranational agreements on conservation in Europe that would give strict protection to the wolf, such as the Bern Convention of 1979 or the EU Habitats Directive of 1992. That strict protection was subsequently written in to Italian legislation in 1992 on the rules for protection of native wildlife, where the wolf was listed amongst the “species of mammals and birds of which there are populations living permanently or temporarily in a state of natural freedom in the national territory” and which were to be “particularly protected” under threat of penalties (see Article 2 in (28)) and by the regulation incorporating the EU habitats directive into Italian legislation in 1997 (see Article 7 and Annex D in (29)). So while there are illegal killings of wolves in regions where there is resentment at their return after they had been hunted out – such as Tuscany in the Northern Apennines - I would suggest that the majority of the population elsewhere in Italy has a greater respect for the law, and which has translated into a greater respect for wolves.

Preparing for the return of the wolf

Denmark has yet to exhibit these tensions, but then the return of the wolf is only a recent phenomenon dating from 2012 and, since it was foreseen and planned for (30) has been closely monitored through photographic evidence of sightings as well as DNA analysis of droppings (31). So far, at least six individual wolfs have been definitively identified and registered by their DNA, and there is photographic evidence that three wolf cubs were born last June, but there will be more as the atlas map of distribution suggests (32). Comparison with the German DNA register shows that the Danish wolves belong to the Central European wolf population, and thus made their way into Denmark by crossing the border from Germany (33). The Netherlands also foresaw the return of wolves and planned for it (30) but sightings have been few, or only evidenced by dead prey, but there is now photographic evidence of a wolf in the Veluwe, a forested area in the province of Gelderland, central Netherlands (34). It seems likely that it also crossed the border from Germany.

Luxembourg also prepared for the return of the wolf, even before one set foot in the country, although there had been sightings just across the borders in Lorraine in France and Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany (35). A working group was set up in December 2015 by the Environment and Agriculture Ministries that included other government officials, conservation and science organisations, foresters and sheep breeders, and which developed a basic structure for an action plan. This plan was released in February this year, Camille Gira, State Secretary for Sustainable Development and Infrastructure, describing it as an “instrument that would allow for a realistic and ecological approach to the wolf in the future” and which would take into consideration the concerns of cattle and sheep farmers as well as the general population (36):
"Every animal has a role in the ecosystem and we should not have an anthropocentric view of the problem, which has often been the case in the past. In the case of the wolf, our attitude is often based not on objective information but on emotions, childhood stories or fairy tale”

The plan is targeted at those interest groups that may come into direct conflict with the wolf, such as sheep farmers, and its purpose is to guarantee a cohabitation between man and the wolf with as few conflicts as possible (37, 38). The Forward to the plan expresses the belief that the return of the wolf to Luxembourg will have “a very positive influence on the forest ecosystem”, and it has this to say later in the plan “As a great predator, it is a fundamental part of the ecosystem. Its presence has very positive effects on biodiversity” (38). The plan details the biological and ecological characteristics of the wolf, surveys the suitable habitat quality across the country, and then addresses the problems, and presents solutions, like the means to protect livestock, a compensation system for loss of livestock, and the granting of subsidies for prevention measures – “this plan sets out measures of information intended for the general public, preventive measures and the modalities of compensation in case of damages caused by the wolf. These means must serve as appropriate instruments to increase the degree of acceptance of the wolf in the population, an essential element for the protection of this species and its important role within the ecosystem, as well as for long-term cohabitation between the man and the wolf”(38).

Alongside the plan is a brochure aimed at the general public that presents the biology and ecology of the wolf, discusses how people should behave in relation to the wolf in the case of a direct encounter (39). It was intended to prepare people for the possible return of the wolf, but it was not long in circulation, only four months, before a farmer photographed a wolf-like animal in his field (40). It did not clearly identify all the criteria needed for positive proof because of the distance at which the photograph was taken. However, a week after the photograph, eight dead sheep were found elsewhere that showed possible signs from the bite marks as being victims of a wolf (41). For this reason, samples of saliva were taken from the bite wounds and sent for DNA testing to the Senckenberg Institute in Germany, which confirmed that the sheep had been killed by a wolf, and that it had come from the Alpine population group that has its distribution in the Italian and French Alps. It is not known whether this wolf is still in the area, but it was the first definitive proof of a presence since 1893.

Engaging with coexistence with wolves

Even where tensions exist, at least some rural organisations have had the foresight to engage with coexistence with wolves, rather than just rail against it. A meeting took place three years ago in Portugal amongst 20 organisations representing the farming, hunting, science and conservation sectors to discuss the future of the Iberian wolf (42). It was recognised that the only way to achieve an action plan to conserve the species in Portugal was to seek consensus among the diverse interests, and involve civil society in its preparation and implementation. It was soon followed by a report, funded by the European Commission, on exploring traditional husbandry methods to reduce wolf predation on free-ranging cattle in Portugal and Spain (43) this cross border aspect having been recognised at the meeting. A year later, Grupo Lubo (Wolf Group) in Portugal produced a brochure that gave information on how to protect cattle from being attacked by wolves (44). More recently, eight associations, including the Federal Association of Professional Shepherds, met this year in Germany to agree and publish a joint statement that saw prevention and compensation of wolf attacks on grazing animals as a central task of wolf management (45,46). The associations agreed that the removal of wolves is not a substitute for herd protection measures, and called for establishment of a national centre for competency in herd protection where experience on measures such as guard dogs and fencing could be pooled and integrated into wolf management plans. They also called for streamlining of the promotion of herd protection, as well as in the compensation for livestock losses.

It has to be said that there was immediate criticism by the German Farmers' Association, Federal Association of Hunting Cooperatives and Owners of Hunting, and the Association of German Sheep Breeding Associations, of this joint statement (47). Their complaint was that herd protection measures were burdensome, that they considered them only effective in some regions, and what they really wanted was prevention of wolves from dispersing in to those regions which they considered were difficult to use protection measures. The fact that population management (Bestandsmanagemen) and population control (Bestandsregulierung) of wolves crops up in the complaint, the latter twice, shows the special pleading of these organisations. It flies in face of evidence from nutrition studies of the wolf in Germany carried out on 6,581 faecal samples between 2001 and 2016 (48). These showed that unspecified farm animals were 1.1% of dietary biomass, and 0.5% were mouflon, a non-native, feral sheep population derived from wild sheep that are a hunted game species in Germany (49). Compare that to the 94.2% made up from roe, red and fallow deer, plus wild boar (at a surprising 17.2%) rabbits and hares, and other medium and small sized mammals - all wild and free living species. It also ignores the information that is already available to them on living with the return of the wolf, on preventive herd protection through fencing and dogs to avoid livestock damage by the wolf, and in seeing how compensation payments have been delivered (50-53). It is also special pleading in expecting authorities in Germany to discount their own laws on strict protection of the wolf, as well as that of the Habitats Directive.

A month after the meeting in Germany, the first Austria-wide Wolf Dialogue Forum took place in Linz that brought together representatives of  hunting, agriculture, nature conservation, tourism, science and federal authorities (54). A wolf expert from Germany and a herd protection expert from Switzerland were also on hand to provide advice. The value of having such a range of knowledge present amongst the organisation showed how urgent it was to bring everyone to the same level of understanding. It was agreed that a fact-based communication strategy should reduce the “emotional hype” about the wolf in public, and that there was a need for an Austria-wide action plan for the wolf. There is to be a second Wolf Dialogue Forum held in the Spring of 2018, with invites going out to a wider audience. A few weeks after that meeting, the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation, which represents national hunters associations from 34 European countries, organised a conference on coexisting with large carnivores at the European Parliament in Brussels (55). The main message emerging from the conference was that more effective measures needed to be implemented now to mitigate the increasing conflicts between humans and large carnivores in Europe. While speakers urged constructive dialogue and collaboration with stakeholders, Daniel Heindl of the Lower Austrian Chamber of Agriculture, called for conflict free areas where grazing and pastoral farming was marginal, such as in Alpine regions of Europe. He eschewed what he described as the “elaborate protective measures” that would be required for a continuance of that marginal farming.

Just days ago, the Union of Small Farmers and Ranchers in Spain hosted the inaugural screening in Madrid of a documentary it made with funding from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and Environment entitled Coexistence? Livestock and wolves (56). Interviews were recorded between March and October this year with farmers in Zamora and Asturias, regions where wolves are not strictly protected in Spain, on how they have to live with the wolf, as well as nature conservation organisations and those working for the protection of the wolf in Spain (57). Lorenzo Ramos, general secretary of the Union of Small Farmers and Ranchers, recognised the need for administrations, livestock farmers and animal welfare organizations to work "in the search for solutions" to achieve "coexistence" between cattle and wolves. He believes the documentary shows the willingness of the people affected to find solutions and "not only choose to mount demonstrations for or against the wolf" He wants to look for solutions that have not yet been developed to scare the wolves out of herds. Although I understood little of the Spanish of this documentary, I found it beguiling (58)

Given that so much of the tension surrounding wolves arises from frustration at what is seen by rural communities as the imposition of the strict protection that they receive under EU legislation, transposed into national legislation, then it is not surprising that the European Commission initiated a range of measures on large carnivores in the EU (59). These include reports funded by the Commission on population level management (60,61) to encourage cooperation between member states (62,63) promoting dialogue with stakeholders (64) and promoting best practices for coexistence with large carnivores (65-67). A listing of case studies on how original conflictual situations have been resolved is especially useful, with its thumbnail portrait of each project or service (68). I remember about seven years ago coming across a simple leaflet developed by the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, with backing from the European Commission, on coexisting with large carnivores, describing the opportunity it presented – “We have the potential to foster a unique experiment where we reintegrate these wild creatures into the fabric of the landscapes” – and the challenges, such as predation of livestock, competition with hunters, the need for larger spaces that the carnivores could expand into to ensure their existence, and the barriers from prejudice (69). The leaflet was expanded with species information and case studies when it was turned into a catalogue to reflect the posters that were displayed at a travelling exhibition in 2009 (70,71). Both the leaflet and the catalogue have these words that encapsulate how we must prepare all of ourselves for the return of large carnivores like the wolf:
“We have the possibility to create a new vision for the European landscape – where wildlife which is truly wild lives close to us. The greatest challenge rests within the human mind. Can we learn to tolerate these species? Can we learn to share our living space and some of our resources with them? Can we overcome centuries of prejudice? Can we turn fear into respect? Most importantly, can we adjust our image of the European countryside to one where there is room for the wild? The large carnivores have demonstrated that they can live with us, the question remains if we can live with them. Their future is entirely at the mercy of our tolerance”

The intrinsic value of lost wild nature

It is of course no hardship for me to compile this information on the growing pains of the integration of large carnivores back into landscapes across Europe when I see it as essential that there is a counter to the superficiality of most reports on the likely reinstatement of former native carnivores to Britain, or indeed the outright hostility that it frequently engenders. I hope that through a rational approach to the challenges that we will face, that I can convey a positive outlook from which others can make their mind up about coming to terms with living with the wolf. If only this was the case with our media, a particularly poor example being a recent article by Catherine Bennett in the Guardian where she sought to blackguard the “disenchanted human beings” who consider the possibility of wolf reinstatement in Britain (72). Her wolf prejudice is straightforward, as Bennet says “…among the more appealing aspects of life in Britain, for the nervous, is the relative certainty of never encountering a wolf pack…….As a recreational walker, I can barely express how grateful I am to inhabit, instead, a landscape dominated by the labradoodle”. Bennett tangentially mentions the protests against wolves by sheep farmers in France, but then notes what she refers to as the “recent celebrations” over the return of wolves to the outskirts of Rome, as though this is a victory for “disenchanted human beings” everywhere. Bennett seems unaware of the conflict currently surrounding wolves in Italy, because she lends them to her concluding paragraph:
“While France and Italy have thriving packs, there seems no good reason why the British public should be denied its own wolf population, even if it may well tell us less about thrilling nature than about the disenchanted human beings who opted to put them back”

I had to track down the real story on these celebrations for the return of the wolf, expecting it to be about mass parties in the streets of Rome. Instead, it was a news release, widely reported in Italy, from the Italian League for the Protection of Birds (73). It was hardly a celebration, just Fulvio Mamone Capria, the president of the League, expressing his delight that photo-traps on Castel di Guido, one of its nature reserves a few miles from Rome, had caught two wolf cubs on camera traps sometime in September this year, born to parents that took up residence there in February 2016 – "An extraordinary event that we are honoured to be able to accommodate in our reserve”. It was what he said next that put this event into context when he described the wolf as “an emblematic species of our natural heritage, yet still victim of poachers and other subjects who do not tolerate their presence. However, the presence of this species, which contains the excess ungulate populations, provides a precious balance to the ecosystem, as well as being a precious, even strongly symbolic, presence for the fauna of the capital and the entire country”

I have not mentioned the opportunities or benefits that reinstatement of large carnivores like the wolf will have for Britain, as the plan for wolves in Luxembourg does (see earlier) and which Fulvio Mamone Capria notes for the wolves in his nature reserve near Rome. I tend not to overplay things like benefits because I take the view that it’s not about gain but absence when considering the intrinsic value of lost wild nature, that absence or incompleteness having consequences for the trophic ecology of our landscapes. I don’t want to see wolves just as a tool to manage our native wild deer, or wild boar if they are properly reinstated (see earlier on the contribution of wild boar to the diet of wolves in Germany). Yet you have to take notice of what’s currently happening in Switzerland since the wolf returned in 1995 after it had been hunted out along with its prey over 100 years ago (74,75). The Federal Office for the Environment worked with relevant stakeholders to develop concepts for management for the wolf, lynx and bear, which take account of conflicts with humans, identifies ways of resolving them and regulates compensation, and this is coupled by a separate website with wide-ranging information on livestock protection from large carnivores (76,77). Switzerland’s first wolf pack formed on the Calanda massif in 2012 (75) since when the number of deer in the area decreased by an estimated third, according to the Graubünden Office for Hunting and Fishing, while it increased by 18 percent throughout the canton (78). There is also evidence in the annual report on wolves in the canton of Graubünden that there are behavioural changes in prey species because of the presence of the wolves - “Based on the observations of gamekeepers, a decline in stocks mainly of red deer and roe deer can be seen. The presence of the wolf pack shows a clearly identifiable influence on the behaviour of this game. They have become shy and significantly changed their behaviour towards using space” (see section 4 in (79)). There is also a knock-on effect on vegetation: Mattiu Cathomen, district forester in Tamins, a core habitat of the Calanda wolf pack, has already observed a positive influence of the wolf in that the number of young silver firs aged two to five years has increased sharply as the damaging effects of the deer have reduced (78). It’s thus unsurprising that the new Forest Development Plan for the region around the city of Chur in Graubünden canton, produced by the Office of Forest and Natural Hazards, specifically notes that a “wolf pack has been established in the Calanda region, which regularly gives birth to new offspring. The impact of this development on hoofed game and related wildlife damage is being investigated. From a forestry point of view, it is hoped that the concentrations of chamois and deer will generally decrease and the living space will be used more dynamically” (80). The natural spread of the large carnivores (wolf, lynx, bear) into the area of the Forest Development Plan is supported as an objective of the plan.

I will come back to the potentialities for greater trophic occupancy, for a completeness of trophic ecology as manifested elsewhere, as it may naturally relate to Britain.

Mark Fisher 15, 21 November 2017

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(60) Linnell J., V. Salvatori & L. Boitani (2008). Guidelines for population level management plans for large carnivores in Europe. A Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe report prepared for the European Commission (contract 070501/2005/424162/MAR/B2).

(61) Towards a population level approach for the management of large carnivores in Europe. Challenges and opportunities, European Commission contract N°070307/2012/629085/SER/B3 DECEMBER 2012

(62) Communication Plan: First version communication plan for the EU Platform on Coexistance Between People and Large Carnivores, European Commission June 2015

(63) EU Platform on Large Carnivores: Supporting good practice for coexistence – presentation of examples and analysis of support through the EAFRD, European Commission, Service Contract No. 07.0202/2015/713809/SER/ENV/B.3 May 2016

(64) From conflict to coexistence? Insights from multidisciplinary research into the relationships between people, large carnivores and institutions. European Commission contract N°070307/2012/629085/SER/B3 February 2013

(65) Large Carnivore Conservation and Management in Europe: The contribution of EC co-funded LIFE projects MARCH 2013

(66) LIFE and human coexistence with large carnivores, Environment, European Commission 2013

(67) Linnell, J.D. C. & Lescureux, N. 2015. Livestock guarding dogs – cultural heritage icons with a new relevance for mitigating conservation conflicts. Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Trondheim, March 2015

(68) Case Studies, EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores, Environment, European Commission

(69) Coexisting with large carnivores: The challenge and the opportunity, Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe & European Commission 2008

(70) What we have done! Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe

(71) Coexisting with large carnivores: The challenge and the opportunity. Exhibition catalogue. Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe & European Commission 2008

(72) Actually, I’d prefer it if the wolf was kept from my door, Catherine Bennett, Guardian 1 October 2017

(73) Lupo, storica cucciolata all'Oasi Castel di Guido (Rm) - Lipu Onlus 25 Settembre 2017

(74) Geschichtlicher Hintergrund, Wölfe in die Schweiz, CHWOLF

(75) Die natürliche Rückkehr der Wölfe in die Schweiz, CHWOLF

(76) Grossraubtiere, Bundesamt für Umwelt (BAFU)

(77) Herdenschutz Schweiz

(78) Das Wolfsrudel am Calanda ist gut für den Wald, 04.09.2017

(79) Wölfe im Kanton Graubünden 2016, Erfahrungen des Amtes für Jagd und Fischerei (AJF) im Jahre 2016. Amt für Jagd und Fischerei Graubünden

(80) Waldentwicklungsplan 2018+, Amt für Wald und Naturgefahren, Region Rheintal/Schanfigg 21. 06. 2017