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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

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

Dawn was breaking as Ida Maria set off along the footpath in Banholt, a small village in the Dutch province of South Limburg. Collecting water for the farm animals was one of her daily tasks. But what she saw that day filled her with such terror that she dropped her pails and raced barefoot back to her house – in her panic she’d jumped clean out of her clogs. At the end of the footpath, bathing in a waterhole, was a large, snarling wolf.

When she reached safety Ida recounted her story to the villagers, who headed out with pitchforks in pursuit of the beast. When they found the wolf they killed it in a frenzied attack. The year was 1831, and the story of Ida and the Banholt wolf, published recently by historian and archivist Harry van der Bruggen in regional newspaper De Limburger, was among the last sightings of a wolf in the Netherlands (the animal was officially eradicated from the country in 1845).

Fear of wolves wasn’t just a Dutch phenomenon. Between the 18th and 20th centuries they were hunted to near extinction across Europe. In 1743 the last wolf in Britain was killed, in the 1890s the last wolf in Belgium was despatched (at the hands, according to legend, of King Leopold II) and in 1904 the last wolf in Germany, known as the ‘Tiger of Sabrodt’, was shot dead by a forester who received a 100-mark bounty for his good work. By this time just a few packs remained on the continent, in eastern Europe, the Balkans and the mountain ranges of Spain and Italy.

Wolves, one of the most adaptable land mammals on the planet, capable of living in habitats from the tundra to the desert, have long stalked the pages of folklore and fairy-tale, from Norse mythology to the infamous nemesis of Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. But although the wolf looms large as a dark menace in our collective psyche, in practice wolf sightings are rare. “It’s not normal wolf behaviour to approach humans,” says Leo Linnartz, an ecologist with NGO ARK Rewilding Netherlands. “To see one, you’ve got to either be very lucky… or trying really hard.”

While the chances of spotting a wolf in Europe remain slim, however, they have grown exponentially in recent decades. This is due in large part to the legal framework created by the European Council’s 1979 Bern Convention and, within the European Union, the 1992 Habitats Directive, which in tandem prohibit the hunting of wolves (and bears and lynxes) as a “strictly protected” and “endangered” species in Europe. With their main killer – humans – removed from the equation, wolves have reclaimed their position as one of the ecosystem’s top predators. A 2022 report by Rewilding Europe found that the EU’s population of wolves had increased by more than 1,800 percent since reaching an all-time low in the 1960s. Today, estimates place it at up to 19,000 wolves.

As wolf numbers increase, they’re also slowly returning to their former territories, spreading out from strongholds in the Polish forests and Iberian Highlands. In 2015, for the first time in nearly 200 years, a wolf was spotted in the Netherlands on a cross-border jaunt from neighbouring Germany. In 2018 the first wolf pack settled in the country, and the following year the first litter of three wolf pups were born. Since then, their number has continued to rise. In 2023, 39 wolf cubs were born in the country to nine established packs dotted across the north of the Netherlands.

As the number of wolves in Europe has risen, so has opposition to them, especially in rural areas”

They now look set to reclaim the south of the country too. In September 2022, a wolf’s DNA was lifted from a sheep’s carcass in Banholt, just down the road from where pitchfork-wielding villagers killed the creature that terrified Ida in 1831. Genetic analyses of droppings and of saliva retrieved from other animals’ remains show the young male known by the identifier ‘gw2541m’ – gw stands for grey wolf, while m stands for male – has roamed more than 200 kilometres, having previously been in the north of the Netherlands, south-east Belgium and Germany.

“The behaviour of this wolf suggests he’s probably looking for a place to settle. And there’s no reason why that place can’t be South Limburg. If you look at the geography, it’s likely that wolves will eventually settle in this area. There are already established wolf packs very close… and as more pups are born to these packs, there will be young males who must leave the group and find their own territories,” Linnartz tells me. “Wolves have made a remarkable comeback and I think it’s a big achievement that we can say that wolves are now well established in the Netherlands. I hope that they are here to stay.”

But this lupine renaissance isn’t being celebrated in all quarters. “I think it’s easy to be nostalgic about wolves if you live in a city apartment,” says the historian Van der Bruggen. “But if you live in a village in the countryside, then it’s a different story. When wolves kill sheep or cows or ponies or whatever, that’s as much a menace to farmers now as it was in the 1800s. Wolves and humans didn’t go so well together then and I don’t think it will go much better now.”

As the number of wolves in Europe has risen, so has opposition to them, especially in rural areas. Although wolves mostly prey on other wild animals like boars and deer, research shows that up to 15 percent of their diet is livestock. Wildlife NGOs estimate that up to 40,000 farm animals, mostly sheep, are hunted by wolves each year in Europe. In 2021, Spanish farmers’ association Coag estimated that wolf-related damages had cost farmers around €5.5 million – the country has an estimated 9,000 wolves, the largest number in Europe.

On average a grey wolf will eat 20 deer a year

On average a grey wolf will eat 20 deer a year. Photo: Getty Images Plus

In response to the killing of their livestock, farmers across Europe have staged anti-wolf protests, from dumping a pile of bloody slaughtered sheep carcasses in Hamburg’s picturesque central square to releasing a flock of 300 live sheep at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In a gruesome act of defiance, in May 2023, the decapitated heads of two wolves were left outside a town hall in Ponga in north-western Spain.

Under pressure from the agriculture sector and hunting lobby, Finland, Norway and Denmark have introduced limited annual wolf-hunting permits. “We see that the wolf population is growing every year… we can see the level of conflict has increased and the level of acceptance decreased,” Anna-Caren Sätherberg, the Swedish rural affairs minister told national public broadcaster SVT in response to a decision to cull 75 of the country’s 460 wolves in January 2023. Wildlife NGOs have lodged complaints that government-mandated hunts aren’t legal under the Bern Convention, but the lengthy and bureaucratic dispute process means that a decision about whether rules have been breached hasn’t yet been made.

The anti-wolf lobby now has a powerful ally. On 4th September 2023, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called for fresh measures to reduce wolf populations. “The concentration of wolves in some European regions has become a real danger for livestock and potentially also for humans,” she said. “I urge national and local authorities to take action where necessary. Indeed, current EU legislation already allows them to do so.”

A poster displayed during an anti-wolf protest in Paris

A poster displayed during an anti-wolf protest in Paris. Photo: NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ecologists aren’t advocating for the protection of wolves just for the sake of it. Wolves have a vital role to play in nature”

Von der Leyen’s dislike of wolves is personal. On 1st September 2022, her prize pony Dolly was brutally savaged to death by a wolf on a pasture just 100 metres away from the European Commission chief ’s country home in Lower Saxony. Wolves had returned to the region just 15 years before. In a statement Von der Leyen said her whole family was “horribly devastated” at Dolly’s death. Within a month the killer, identified as ‘gw950m’ by DNA traces left at the crime scene, had been added to a kill-list – Germany, in accordance with EU law, allows for the issuing of licences to kill so-called ‘problem wolves’ that repeatedly prey on livestock. Local authorities in Hanover, which issued the wolf’s death sentence, said that the request to kill gw950m had been filed the day before Dolly’s demise, on 31st August 2022, and was therefore not a result of the death of Von der Leyen’s pony.

Regardless of who was behind the shoot-to-kill order placed on gw950m, Von der Leyen has certainly used her considerable political sway to pursue what looks distinctly like a wolf vendetta. In November 2022, just three months after Dolly’s death, she instructed EU Commission officials to carry out an “in-depth analysis” of wolves’ protected status. This review has polarised lawmakers. “Are we going to allow Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to abuse her power for personal payback because one of her ponies fell victim to the wolf?” asked Dutch MP Leonie Vestering at a parliamentary debate on the matter. “If the wolf is no longer protected, there is a good chance that it will be exterminated by hunting, as it was in the 19th century.”

But Von der Leyen’s wolf-bothering agenda also received support, and in November 2022, the European parliament voted in favour of downgrading protections for the carnivores. The nonbinding motion was driven by a group of conservative European lawmakers known as the European People’s Party, which counts Von der Leyen among its members. They were backed up by some unlikely allies. “The culling of wolves needs to be faster and less bureaucratic,” Germany’s environment minister Steffi Lemke, a member of the Green Party, told newspaper Die Welt in September 2023. “When dozens of sheep are killed and left dead in the pasture, it is a tragedy for every livestock farmer.” The number of farm animals killed and injured by wolves annually in Germany rose from less than 500 in 2014 to more than 4,000 in 2022.

Ecologists say that a narrow focus on how much livestock wolves kill misses the point. “There is a bigger question here: What kind of world do we want to live in?” says Frans Schepers, co-founder and executive director of Rewilding Europe, an NGO that has overseen the restoration of 40,000 hectares of wilderness on the continent. “The wolf is part of an ecosystem; it creates a ripple effect. Ecologists aren’t advocating for the protection of wolves just for the sake of it. We are not talking about zoo animals; wild wolves have a vital and beneficial role to play in nature.”

The poster child for claims of the wolf’s importance is Yellowstone National Park, mostly in the US state of Wyoming. In 1926 the reserve’s last wolf was killed. With their natural predator gone, the population of elk exploded. Overgrazing by the herbivores depleted willow and aspen tree cover. With few trees to nest in, songbirds disappeared and beavers could no longer build dams. Riverbanks were eroded and cold-water fish and plants overheated in unshaded water. Some 70 years later, in 1995, after years of lobbying, ecologists were finally given the green light to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone, hoping to produce a ‘trophic cascade’ that would charge through the ecosystem. At the time, it was a leap into the unknown. Was it possible that a few wolves could really restore seven decades of damage?

Grey wolves being transported into Yellowstone Park ahead of their release in 1995

Grey wolves being transported into Yellowstone Park ahead of their release in 1995. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

It appears so. As the wolves began to hunt, the number of elk in the park’s largest herd slowly fell from around 19,000 to a stable 7,000. A so-called ‘landscape of fear’ created by the risk of wolf predation is thought to have limited elks’ casual grazing in open spaces. As a result, canopy cover and shrubbery has returned to areas from which it had all but disappeared. The one remaining beaver colony in 1995 multiplied to become ten by 2007. By 2015 there were 19. Moreover, although the return of wolves to Yellowstone has cost the park some $30 million in total, the creatures are returning the favour by bringing in an estimated $35 million in ecotourism annually. And Yellowstone is not the only place that could benefit from the regulatory effects of the much-maligned predator.

The Oostvardersplassen is 5,000 miles away from Yellowstone as the crow flies. A 15,000-acre nature reserve of sprawling swamps, reed plains and rugged forests, it has been dubbed the ‘Dutch Serengeti’. It’s a crisp autumn day when I tour the park with ranger Hans-Erik Kuypers and it’s teeming with wildlife. Large-antlered stags tussle with one another over mates, wild horses congregate to drink at the edge of a lake, and herds of Heck cattle stroll across the grassy plains.

But Oostvardersplassen, just a half hour away from Amsterdam, is not quite the naturally occurring wilderness it seems at first glance. It sits in the province of Flevoland, whose reclamation from the muddy bed of the North Sea began in the mid-1930s and took nearly four decades to complete. The site where Oostvardersplassen is today was originally earmarked for industrial development. However, by the time the land had been fully drained and dried out it was the late 1970s and a global economic downturn had dulled demand for new factories. Instead it was handed over to Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera, who wanted to create a self-sustaining wilderness premised on a radical theory of ecosystems of the Paleolithic era, when early humans lived in caves and mastodons, woolly rhinos, giant elk and steppe bison stalked the land.

In contrast to prevailing views, which held that prehistoric Europe was mostly forested, Vera believed the landscape was a more park-like mix of small woods and rolling meadows, maintained by herds of large herbivores. But with Stone Age creatures extinct, the ecologists had to look for the next best thing to populate the Oostvardersplassen. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the scientists added semi-wild Polish Konik ponies (a breed that may be genetically related to the tarpan, a wild horse of the Eurasian steppe that became extinct in the 1930s), American red deer and Heck cattle, the product of a genetic experiment by two scientists in Weimar-era Germany to recreate aurochs, a giant horned cow that went extinct in the late 17th century (developments in DNA testing would later reveal that Heck cattle, although hardy, had little in common genetically with aurochs). At first the Oostvaardersplassen seemed to be blooming. There to capture its transformation was documentary maker Mark Verkerk. Shot over 600 days, his film The New Wilderness billed itself as capturing the cycle of life and death in a “pristine wilderness… in Europe’s most densely populated country.” Released in 2013 the movie was a box-office hit, becoming the Netherlands’ highest grossing nature documentary.

But away from the cameras, trouble was brewing. With no natural predators like wolves the reserve’s grazing population was exploding. By 2018, on the back of several unusually warm winters, the number of deer, cattle and horses had reached more than 5,200. Then a cold year came. With insufficient food and plummeting temperatures, the animals died en masse. From the trains that skirt the park’s outer edge commuters had a front row seat on the suffering; glassy-eyed ponies lying on the ground dying from starvation, emaciated cattle and deer carcasses pecked at by scavenger birds. This spectacle of death sparked public outrage. Protesters gathered at the reserve’s perimeter fencing with signs branding the Oostvaardersplassen an ‘Auschwitz for animals’. Some threw hay bales over the fence to feed the starving creatures inside. Park rangers received death threats. “It was a very difficult, tense time,” says Kuypers. “Every day we rangers would come to work and there would be protesters shouting at us. And I also felt a lot of emotion for the animals – I’m human, I’m not blind, of course it was very painful to see their suffering.”

As a ranger I can say that wolves would be extremely welcome here”

Although Dr Vera had planned to create a landscape dominated by grasslands, he hadn’t intended for vegetation to be entirely obliterated by grazers desperate for food. “Everything was just mud – no shrubs, no grass, just mud,” Kuypers tells me as we drive through an area that is now covered with waist-high greenery. Under pressure from the angry protesters, local authorities intervened and ordered a mass cull of the herbivores that were unlikely to survive the winter, on humanitarian grounds. Around 3,200 animals, amounting to 60 percent of the total population, were killed with some 89 percent of those culled by rangers. Kuypers has done much to revive both the public image and biodiversity of Oostvaardersplassen. He proudly shows me areas where trees and shrubbery are recovering. Currently, they’re fenced off to allow them to develop sufficiently to withstand the nibbling of hungry deer, but soon he hopes they will be strong enough to survive without the protective railing.

A herd of cattle stand in the snow at the Oostvaardersplassen, sometimes referred to as the Dutch Serengeti

A herd of cattle stand in the snow at the Oostvaardersplassen, sometimes referred to as the Dutch Serengeti. Photo: Remko De Waal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

The grazer population is now relatively stable at around 1,100. Kupyers does his best to relocate animals, particularly horses, to other nature reserves where possible. Culls, however, remain an essential if grim component of park life. Despite their return to the Netherlands, wolves are yet to discover the Oostvaardersplassen, which is in close proximity to some of the country’s most densely populated areas, but Kuypers lives in hope. “As a ranger I can say that wolves would be extremely welcome here,” he says. “We would certainly benefit from a landscape of fear. It would solve a lot of problems.”

The Oostvaardersplassen is not the only place to have struggled to keep its grazer populations in check. Until the early 20th century deer were absent from much of the UK. Now there are so many that it’s impossible to even count them – official estimates place the number at around two million, but ecologists say this figure is conservative. Their success is largely due to an absence of predators, other than humans, resulting in an astonishing infant-to-adult survival rates of up to 83 percent. The result of their heavy grazing, not unlike in the Oostvaardersplassen, is diminished tree cover and scrubland, vital habitats for nightingales, warblers and a host of other wildlife. Although around 350,000 deer are culled in the UK annually, ecologists say 750,000 should be killed every year just to keep the population stable.

The UK’s excess deer population has led some ecologists to argue it’s time to take the next step in rewilding. “Bring back the wolf and all other native species that people in this country are prepared to accept,” wrote George Monbiot, rewilding activist and author of Feral in a recent column for the Guardian about what he brands the “ecological disaster” of Britain’s surging deer population. “Our living systems – and our lives – will be the richer for them.”

Public support for advancing rewilding by bringing extinct species back is high in the UK. A 2020 YouGov poll found that 82 percent of Britons are in favour, with around 45 percent supporting the return of wolves and lynxes. But the European experience shows that the reality of living with apex predators can bite hard once it happens. An August 2023 survey by Dutch data organisation Kieskompas found that the number of people who did not believe “that the wolf belongs in the Netherlands” had risen from around one-quarter to one-third over an 18-month period.

The findings followed a series of wolf-related incidents in the country. In July 2023, a wolf was shot dead by police in Drenthe after it allegedly bit a hobby farmer who had cornered the animal with a pitchfork following an attack on his sheep. Meanwhile, the local authorities in the Gelderland province have proposed shooting ‘tame’ wolves with paintballs to scare them off after members of a pack were filmed gallivanting alongside bicycles and wandering up to a family of hikers on a towpath in the Hoge Veluwe National Park. The park’s director, a vocal opponent of the return of the wolf to the Netherlands, derided the idea as “a fake solution so they don’t have to say, ‘shoot them dead’”.

Killing wolves is not quite the straightforward solution their detractors believe it to be. “There has been limited shooting of wolves [in some countries] and we see that so long as there are suitable areas for them to repopulate then they come back on their own. Unless you decided to kill all the wolves in Europe, then there’s no point shooting any wolf at all,” says Linnartz, ARK’s resident wolf expert.

The idea that ‘problem’ wolves can be carefully targeted, he says, is also a myth. “Wolves don’t walk around with a sign on them saying ‘I’m a pony killer’. There’s no way to tell one wolf from another. So, what happens is that you end up with a lot of collateral damage.” As a case in point, the killer of Von der Leyen’s pony Dolly is still at large after the licence to shoot him expired in January 2023, but not before hunters looking for him killed a female wolf in a case of mistaken identity.

Protect, protect, protect. That is the only way to live with the wolf. Make sure it can’t blow your house down”

Moreover, argues Linnartz, wolf populations are self-regulating and don’t need human intervention to bring numbers down. “Wolves are territorial creatures. They need a territory of between 50 and 200 square kilometres, depending on the number of ungulates. They’ll fight to the death over their territories. What you see is that when an area is full of wolves, any new wolf must fight for his territory, leading to the death of either the newcomer or an existing wolf. And so the number of wolves stabilises at that point.”

Instead of shooting wolves, wildlife groups say that farmers should take heed of the tale of the Three Little Pigs. “Protect, protect, protect. That is the only way to live with the wolf. Make sure it can’t blow your house down,” says Mathilde Klaasse, spokesperson for the NGO Wolven in Nederland. Part of Klaasse’s work is to educate Dutch farmers about how to better protect their flocks. In the Netherlands, as in most European countries, the government provides subsidies to install high-voltage anti-wolf fences and compensates farmers for livestock losses proven to be caused by wolves. “The reality is that [in terms of compensation] it’s better for your sheep to be killed by a wolf than for it to be attacked by a dog,” says Klaasse. Dogs kill as many as 13,000 sheep annually in the Netherlands.

In South Limburg, livestock owners are bracing for the return of wolves to the region. In a hamlet just down the road from Banholt, hobby farmer Robin Huntjens is installing a 700-metre 11,000-volt fence to protect his flock of around 20 animals. Sheep-owners like Huntjens say that Europe’s governments aren’t doing enough to help farmers. Although he received a grant to cover some of the €14,000 costs, he still had to pay around one-third from his own pocket. He also spent around 20 days of his own time installing it. By building a fence that meets official standards, Huntjens will be entitled to compensation if his animals are killed. But payouts, he says, don’t cover true costs. “My sheep have papers [for breeding] but the money you get is just the meat value of the sheep, which is much less,” he says. “It’s also emotional. When the sheep are killed for meat it’s done humanely, but when a wolf attacks the sheep doesn’t always die straight away, it can suffer a lot. And if a wolf gets into your fields it will kill as many sheep as it can, more than it can eat.” Huntjens’ wife, Josca, says it’s not just her sheep that she worries about. “I want my daughter and her friends to be able to go and play outside, to go to the forest and not be afraid. You can’t have children wandering around if there’s a pack of wolves out there,” she says. “In my opinion, if a wolf attacks sheep or people then it should be allowed to shoot it… If a dog attacks a person, we consider it a dangerous animal. Why should it be ok for a wolf to do that?”

Wolf advocates, however, are adamant that coexistence is possible. “Of course, when you hear ‘wolf’ it’s a scary-sounding thing,” says Rewilding Europe’s Frans Schepers. “But wolves were here for centuries and then were gone for just 150 years, which is really a very tiny period in history, relatively. We are far more used to living with them than we are without them… This isn’t a fairy story about the big, bad wolf. It’s a story where we get to write the ending.”

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