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DG #52 preview: A wolf at the door

There are an estimated 19,000 wolves in Europe, with the population rising by 1,800 percent since the 1960s. Photo: Getty Images

The 52nd issue of Delayed Gratification features an article by editor-at-large Harriet Salem about the revival of wolves in mainland Europe, and why the return of this ancient menace is dividing opinion. Matthew Lee speaks to Harriet about her reporting from the Netherlands.

Matthew Lee: What initially drew you to this topic?
Harriet Salem: I live in an area of the Netherlands where wolves have been spotted. In fact, I was fortunate enough to see one not far from my house. For me the encounter was incredibly special and impressive, but I also felt on an instinctive level some fear. I’m also aware that for livestock owners that live in my area, the return of the wolf is not popular. So, I wanted to look more closely at what the return of this apex predator means.

ML: Why is the EU rethinking the conservation status of wolves in the continent?
HS: I think that governments across Europe are under pressure from the agricultural sector. Livestock owners, particularly in the Netherlands, already feel that their livelihood is under threat from emissions reduction measures. From their perspective wolves are yet another problem. Debate is a part of a healthy democratic process, so I don’t think it’s wrong that there’s discussion of the topic per se.  However, in my opinion, it would be better to focus efforts on helping farmers protect their livestock and compensating them when sheep are killed rather than allowing the hunting of wolves.

ML: Are wolves becoming part of the culture wars in European countries? 
HS: There’s certainly an urban-rural divide on the issue. However, it’s also worth noting that opinion polls show that support for the reintroduction of apex predators falls once it’s happened. In other words, people like the idea more than the reality. I think there’s something very romantic about ‘wilding’ that draws people in. It’s the idea that we can return to a better, simpler time before the mass extinction of species, climate change and so on. A kind of Garden of Eden. But of course, we can’t go back to what we had before. We have to find ways that work in the present time. So, I think it’s important to be pragmatic when we talk about things like the return of the wolf. Sure, it sounds like a nice idea. But how do we make it work in contemporary times?

ML: Do you think the portrayal of wolves in folklore and mythology has had an impact on our relationship with the animals?
HS: I think that folklore and mythology are based, at least in part, on truth. The reason the wolf is portrayed as powerful and sinister is because, at least for a shepherd in olden times, the wolf was something to be afraid of. But, as I already said, the 21st century is a very different place. As the ecologists I interviewed explained, the presence of a small number of apex predators (like the wolf) can have a cascade effect that ripples through entire ecosystems and benefits us all. So perhaps it’s time to rewrite the stories we tell about wolves, and make sure that the next generation sees things differently. As Frans Schepers, director of Rewilding Europe, told me: “This isn’t a fairy story about the big bad wolf. It’s a story where we get to write the ending.”

You can read the full feature by Harriet Salem in issue 52 of Delayed Gratification, available from our online shop here.

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