Wolves have made an impressive comeback in Europe in recent decades, but their presence has angered some farmers and led to a hostile backlash.
Usually, the return of a famous creature once driven to the brink of extinction would be a universal cause for celebration.
Particularly when it comes about, in part, through a conservation campaign backed by EU policy.
But this has not been the case for the return of the wolf in Europe.
It has become a polarising topic across the continent. Conservationists hail their impact on the environment and the ecological benefits. Farmers, however, are worried for their livestock in areas that haven’t had wolves in them for decades.
The wolf has also long held Europeans’ cultural attention, from fairy tales featuring the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ to mythology associating them with witchcraft.
So are there legitimate concerns around the animal’s European return or is it a load of huff and puff over nothing?
Humans led wolves to near-extinction last century
Wolves have a long history in Europe roaming across the continent for centuries.
But as they sometimes prey on livestock, they came into conflict with humans who started intensely hunting them as a result. This led to their extinction in many European countries by the mid-20th century, although stable populations remained in certain areas.
Since the 1970s attitudes towards large carnivores began changing and conservation efforts were made to revive failing populations. Today, numbers have boomed to around 19,000 in the EU, according to a report by the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, and wolves now live in every mainland EU member state.
The strength of this return is reflected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species which now lists the wolf in Europe as of least concern.
This spectacular comeback has been hailed by many environmentalists and conservationists who cite the benefits of wolves to ecosystems.
“Large predators, particularly apex predators, are one of our best allies to combat climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss,” says Enrique Perez, the chairperson of the European Alliance for Wolf Conservation (EAWC). This platform of national NGOs from 15 countries advocates for more rigorous enforcement of wolf protections.
“So we shouldn't have the perception that it's a conflict or a problem, but it's the opposite.”
What are the difficulties Europe has faced with the return of wolves?
But for some farmers the comeback of the European wolf is viewed as a problem. Many have not had to deal with their presence in decades, if ever, and adapting to that can be difficult and stressful.
There are fears particularly around the loss of livestock. Over 11,000 sheep and goats were killed in France in 2020, according to government statistics. Farmers are financially compensated for their losses but some argue it’s not enough and doesn’t solve the root of the problem.
Wolf conservationists say the way around this is to deploy electric fences, livestock guarding dogs and a human presence but not everyone agrees.
“These measures are just not good enough,” says Niall Curley, a senior policy advisor at Copa-Cogeca, the EU farmers’ association.
“Because of the high number of large carnivores that are coming, they're just not being effective and in fact can, in turn, inhibit biodiversity or the restoration of these habitats, especially if you put up these big fences to try to keep out wolves, they keep out deer as a result as well.”
He wants to see a change in the protection status of the wolf at an EU level to allow “the proper management” of populations.
Curley is specifically talking about altering the Habitats Directive which was introduced in 1992 and is the cornerstone of EU biodiversity policy. It offers strict protection for wolves and only allows them to be killed in certain circumstances such as if there’s a risk to public health or if they have reached favourable conservation status in an area.
Member states are legally obliged to follow this directive, but there have been recent high-profile incidents where this has not been the case.
Wolves are being illegally hunted across Europe
Authorities in Sweden gave the green light for hunters to kill 75 wolves in a total population estimated to be 460 earlier this year.
"The wolf issue has become a symbol of the conflict between the city and rural areas," Johanna Sandahl, president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, told Euronews at the time.
And this sentiment can also be seen in other European countries. At the end of April, the government of Bavaria passed a decree allowing hunters to kill multiple wolves when livestock is attacked. Before this only the specific wolf involved could be culled, but now several can be targeted.
Minister President of Bavaria Markus Soeder told reporters: ‘The wolf does not belong here’.
Soeder’s party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) has called for the eradication of the animal in the country.
In response, conservationists have accused him and his party of playing politics with rural concerns surrounding the wolf.
“It's an opinion,” says Glenn Lelieveld, project leader of the Dutch Mammal Society.
“He can say ‘I don't like wolves’. Well, I don't like ticks. I don't like mosquitoes. Congratulations on your opinion. But how does that work for you? I don't think it's actually about the wolf.”
Wolves are being beheaded and poisoned in Europe
Enrique Perez of the EAWC points to Spain as another example of the politicisation of the wolf.
There will be regional and local elections at the end of this month and a general election by the end of this year. He quips that “every four years (The Spanish election cycle) the debate around wolves is back” and then it simmers down again.
Three weeks ago, two severed wolf heads were placed on the steps of the town hall of Ponga in northwestern Spain.
There have been rising tensions between farmers and the Spanish government since 2021. The country upped the legal protections of wolves by banning hunting everywhere, except in exceptional circumstances.
The move was criticised by farmers and local governments in Castilla y León, Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, the regions where 95 per cent of Spain’s wolf population lives.
Before the adoption of the divisive measure, wolves were protected in areas where they had lower population numbers but in the regions with higher numbers, they could be targeted by hunters subject to certain regulations.
In Italy nine wolves were found poisoned this week, according to one of the country’s national parks.
"The causes of the massacre have yet to be certified by the Istituto Zooprofilattico[Italian animal health authority],” the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise park said in a statement. “But the discovery in recent days of some morsels soaked in chemical substances leaves little doubt and opens up dramatic scenarios as to why in 2023 there are still people linked to archaic and cowardly activities; people who think they can take justice into their own hands by eliminating the ‘enemy’.”
The coexistence of large carnivores and humans in Italy has been thrown into the spotlight recently when a bear killed a jogger in the northern Trentino region last month.
What happened to Ursula von der Leyen’s pony?
The increased political attention on the protection of wolves is not only limited to the national arena, however.
In November last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution to weaken the protection of wildlife including wolves. The resolution is non-binding but it is putting pressure on the European Commission, which does have the power to alter the protections.
In December, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen replied to a letter from members of the EPP (a conservative grouping in the European Parliament that she herself is a part of) who are urging a reassessment of the EU’s wolf strategy.
Von der Leyen said that the EU Commission should examine the current protection status of wolves, according to German press agency DPA.
And she has had her own run-in with these animals.
Her 30-year-old pony, Dolly, was killed by one near Hannover in Germany in September. The culprit was identified through DNA testing and a shooting licence granted.
It has since lapsed and a spokesperson for the Hannover administrative court told Euronews: “As far as we know, the wolf should still be alive.”
Is it possible for wolves and humans to coexist in Europe?
So in such a politicised and heated debate how do we move forward in the case of the wolf?
Hanna Pettersson is a social scientist and postdoc researcher at the University of York. She carried out research on the ground in rural communities in northern Spain to explore the dynamics between the community, expanding wolf populations and the authorities.
“One of the problems here which has really bolstered the conflict is that there tends to be both laws and solutions being imposed top down,” she says.
“And they are being proposed by people who don't even live with these carnivores and who have no understanding of what is going on on the ground.”
Pettersson believes that the solutions offered are often overly simplistic for a complicated matter. She wants to see increased engagement with the farmers themselves and authorities working with them to come up with different solutions for different communities based on their needs.
“One solution is to find a way to make the wolf a vehicle for redistribution and rural development,” she suggests.
“Because what has happened over many hundreds of years is a strong marginalisation of rural areas and livelihoods. And that is the cause of a lot of the land abandonment that we see today.”
Pettersson adds that it is about addressing vulnerabilities in the countryside areas that have to deal with wolves.
“The unfortunate reality is that large carnivores are mostly lived with and dealt with by the most marginalised people.”
This sentiment is echoed by Glenn Lelieveld.
“You have to first accept this big socio-cultural identity threat for a lot of animal owners to accept having a large carnivore in your neighbourhood,” he says.
“If you have accepted that and if you are aided by the government with extra people, extra salary, extra material and with education on how to do this, then in time this could go to zero conflict.”