German conservationists thrilled at wolf’s return; farmers less keen

Hunted to extinction in the early years of the 20th century, the wolf is making a spectacular comeback across almost all of Germany. The rewilding community is thrilled and wants their protected status to continue, but farmers are less keen, even if their losses would be compensated.

Lotta and Juli have been scouring the woodlands of the German states of Saxony and neighbouring Brandenburg for prey for six months now. Lotta, an adult, has scouted around 200 square kilometres, while Juli, who is just a year old, has covered a little more than half of that.

“We still don’t know whether they are mother and daughter, or aunt and niece,” wolf researcher Ilka Reinhardt says. The two predators were fitted with transmitters after Saxony decided to restart a tracking programme following a lengthy gap.

Satellites have tracked the wolves on travels as far afield as Belarus and Denmark.

While wolves generally avoid humans, Juli has been tracked on the outskirts of the city of Cottbus. Reinhardt believes she may be wanting to start a family. “The problem is that she needs a territory,” the researcher for the Lupus Institute says.

Reinhardt predicts the wolf population will continue to grow for as long as the wolves can find suitable territory. The numbers tend to stabilize once the animals have established themselves, and the territory becomes “saturated,” as the researchers put it.

In 2000, Saxony became the first of Germany’s 16 states where cubs were sighted, following a 96-year absence that started when the then last wolf in the region was shot.

Since then the wolves, benefiting from their protected status, have spread north and west across the north German plain into Brandenburg and Lower Saxony. Expansion southwards into the central uplands and further still into the Alps is proceeding much more slowly.

Reinhardt notes that some believe that wolves from the plains are reluctant to move into more mountainous territory, although this remains theory. But the species will continue to spread out, even in times of climate change. Wolves are extremely adaptable, she says.

According to the latest figures from Germany’s DBBW wolf monitoring office, Brandenburg now has 41 packs, overtaking Saxony’s 22. Lower Saxony is third, with 21. Each pack is believed to have around eight animals, made up of the adult pair plus their offspring spawned during a two-year period.

Indeed, wolves have now been sighted across most of Germany, even if some of the first sightings are only of lone animals.

The overall figures are a matter of dispute. The hunters association puts the total number at 1,300 and predicts this figure will rise to 1,800 by the spring.

The NABU conservation organization believes the hunters association figure is overstated. “It merely generates panic,” NABU wolf expert Marie Neuwald says, charging that the hunters have included all yearlings and cubs, figures that have little relevance to the bigger picture.

“The mortality rate for cubs in the first year of life is around 50 per cent, and there is considerable fluctuation,” she says, predicting that it will be some time before the German wolf population reaches the conservation status of “favourable,” according to European Union criteria, implying 1,000 adult animals.

Wolves’ populations gains mean their strict protected status is being questioned. In May, the German government decided to ease shooting policy following attacks on domestic herds, and the question now is whether preventive shooting should follow.

Frank Fass, head of a Lower Saxony wolf monitoring centre, believes the number of wolf territories is rising at 30 per cent a year. This would imply 130 packs across Germany by the spring of 2020.

“Every landscape has its capacity that decides how many packs it can take,” Fass says. He predicts the numbers will continue to rise, but insists there is no need for wolves to be hunted. “I do believe, however, that hunting will be pushed through politically at some point,” Fass says.

“My prediction is that, while we will have wolf hunting in 20 years, there will still be attacks on unprotected domestic animals, in particular sheep and game kept in reserves,” Fass says.

During the course of 2018, the DBBW noted 639 wolf attacks on farm animals, resulting in death or injury in 2,067 cases. The figure was well up from 472 attacks and 1,667 victims in 2017, which, in turn, was considerably higher than the year before.

The DBBW cautions against drawing overly hasty conclusions. “A comparison of domestic animal losses in different European countries has shown that the extent of losses was not directly linked to the size of the wolf population or the number of farm animals,” it noted.

The key factor was how well sheep and goats – the main targets – were protected. “This analysis is confirmed by German experience,” it continued in a recent report.

Most attacks occur where wolves have only recently moved in and where shepherds and goatherds have yet to become accustomed to their presence. “Losses in these areas decline once livestock farmers apply proper protection measures,” the DBBW says.

Unable to distinguish wild and domesticated animals, wolves “kill those animals for food that they can easily overcome.”

Hunting in the wild, a pack of wolves has little chance of bringing down more than one deer at a time, whereas a herd of domesticated animals offers oversupply.

“This easy opportunity causes them to kill more animals than they can consume,” a contact group tracking wolves in Saxony says.

This is where the fault line between rewilders and farmers lies. Wolf attacks on humans are after all vanishingly rare, despite the fairy tales.

But for the present, as the front lines harden, Lotta and Juli are free to roam, their movements tracked by transmitter and satellite until the collars break open after two years and they return to an anonymous existence.

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