< SWITCH ME >

At E&M we are passionate about nature, so set out to explore our particular biodiversity in a different way. In Europe's Green Gems you will learn about the hidden gems of Europe's biodiversity. We start this column with one of the biggest myths on our continent: the wolf. But what do we really know about this animal?

Imagine you had to explain to your friends and family what a wolf is. How would you go about it? No problem, right? Everyone seems to have at least a general idea. The wolf is in this respect one of the most well-known among his over 200 mammal colleagues living in Europe. Still, the images that wolves recall are less happy than let's say a rabbit or a squirrel. Some of Europe's most famous fairy tales portray the wolf as the ultimate villain of the forest. Who hasn't heard of the ruthless, treacherous and remorseless wolf who terrorises the life of poor Little Red Riding Hood (French: 'Le Petit Chaperon Rouge' German: 'Rotkäppchen' Polish: 'Czerwony Kapturek')?

wolf_stamp
Graphic www.wikipedia.org
Bad marketing - the wolf's reputation has been ruined by this all too popular tale...

Our fear and hostility towards wolves has not restricted itself to fairy tales only: the first recorded European wolf bounty hunt dates to around 600 BC when Solon of Athens offered five silver drachmas to any hunter for killing any male wolf, and one for every female. In 1281, King Edward I demanded the total eradication of the wolf from England, a job which was only finished 200 years later by Henry VIII. During the Ceausescu era, bounties equivalent to half a month's salary were offered to any Romanian ranger who managed to kill a wolf. Even eliminating wolf cubs was rewarded with a quarter of a month's salary. Even as recently as last year, the usually calm and rational Swedes lost their temper when the government approved for the second year in a row a public wolf hunt after 45 years of wolf protection. It caused a serious row which even made the European Commission threaten legal action as the hunt would violate Sweden's European nature protection obligations.

In the absence of sufficient food, wolves specialised in livestock - a gentle lamb just makes such an easy prey when the shepherd looks the other way!

Why do we get so emotional when it comes to wolves? As with all complicated relationships, we go a long way back. The wolf inhabited what we now call Europe long before the first humans appeared and for thousands of years wolves preyed on the same species as our hunter/gatherer forefathers and mothers. Wolves and humans must have understood each other fairly well. As many things changed after the agricultural revolution, so did our relationship with wolves. For a long time, wolves managed to adapt to Europeans as they increased and intensified their agriculture. This is still observable: compared to their American cousins, Eurasian wolf packs need much smaller territories. However, our paths crossed less and less, and human knowledge of wolves mainly lived on through storytelling.

Problems grow

As overgrazing shrank European forests, human-wolf conflicts rose rapidly from the 17th century onwards. In the absence of sufficient food, wolves specialised in livestock - a gentle lamb just makes such an easy prey when the shepherd looks the other way! The number of wolf attacks on humans also increased. Not because wolves were feeding on humans, but because hungry wolves took more risks and shepherds defended their source of income. More significantly, bad health in wolf packs increased rabies - a disease now nearly gone from Europe. In the last century, only rabid wolves seem to have killed Europeans. Nine kids in total, of which five were killed by the same Polish wolf in 1938. Terrible, of course. But looking at it statistically, that's about the same number of Europeans who died in a traffic accident while you were reading this single E&M issue.

Research showed that large predators like wolves play an important role in regulating ecosystems. How? Mostly by fear.

Times change. The Bern convention of 1979 gave legal protection to the wolf in Europe for the first time. In 1992, the European Commission declared the wolf a protected species under the European Habitats Directive. Research showed that large predators like wolves and bears play an important role in regulating ecosystems. How? Mostly by fear. Stressed prey species like deer will reproduce less in the presence of a wolf pack. Less grazing allows forests to regenerate naturally; this regeneration currently doesn't take place in European forests. Wolves would maintain the numbers of grazers at natural levels, and would move on in case of shortage. In other words, wolves could make our forests more dynamic and resilient, which is the objective of many foresters. As European forests are currently suffering from overgrazing and insufficient forest dynamics, wolves could actually take over a lot of our costly forest management like hunting, planting and tree protection. Moreover, wolves would aid in the conservation of many other species which benefit from its presence. For example, scavenging species like the raven would profit from the wolve's leftovers.

This of course conflicts with some business interests like hunting for pleasure. Moreover, wolves can also create costs to society when precautions are not taken. In 2010, the French government paid 1.1 million euros to farmers for 1,090 wolf attacks on livestock. Moreover, millions of euros were spent on training French farmers to protect their livestock against wolves. For example by using sheepdogs, knowledge which in many areas had been lost in the wolf's absence.

The future of the wolf

Although a very detailed cost-benefit analysis seems to be lacking so far, having wolves seems to be ultimately a lot cheaper to society as a whole than not having wolves. An example could be Yellowstone National Park in the US, where wolves were introduced in 1992, and where a cost-benefit analysis in 2006 showed that additional income through wolf-related tourism and facilitation for other species, was at least a ten times the increased cost through loss of domestic cattle and potential game species. Yet, in most areas where wolves have been absent, joint efforts between farmers, governments, nature organisations and citizens will be vital to make a harmonious future a reality. And with wolf populations establishing themselves in many European countries where they once disappeared, this effort needs to come rather sooner than later: 2011 was again a good wolf year with growing populations in Germany and first sightings in Belgium and the Netherlands.

If you do surprise a wolf, just make some small noises so it knows you are there - and it will probably run for its life. If not, take a prize-winning picture and get the hell out of the delivery room.

The return of the wolf will increasingly pop up in family conversations. You will now be prepared to debunk some myths. If you come across a wolf yourself, consider yourself to be one of the happy few! Chances are slim, as they usually run long before you see them. If you do surprise a wolf, keep a safe distance as this close encounter was certainly not the wolf's idea. Just make some small noises so it knows you are there – and it will probably run for its life. If not, take a prize-winning picture and get the hell out of the delivery room. Some spaces are just not for sharing.

NEXT ISSUE
IN -1105 DAYS