An Uneasy Return

As wolves regain ground in Europe, so do age-old fears.

SNOW IN EARLY December has become a rare phenomenon in Germany in recent years, but this past winter a sudden snowstorm hit the south of the country hard — resulting in grounded planes, canceled trains, and an exceptionally beautiful backdrop for my tour of the 2,962-square-kilometer Altmühltal Valley Nature Park in the southeastern state of Bavaria. Just south of Nuremberg, the Altmühl River runs slowly southeast for more than 200 kilometers before joining the Danube near the city of Regensburg. The region around the river, called Altmühltal (Altmühl Valley), is one of rolling hills and small villages with traditional sheep farms.

“My whole life has been about sheep,” René Gomringer tells me as we descend into a snow-covered valley in his white Duster compact-SUV. After several switchback turns, we pass by a small cluster of snow-covered A-frame houses tucked under a blanket of mist. As we drive, Gomringer explains how sheep farmers traditionally lead their flocks up and down the sides of the valley.

When Gomringer started sheep farming in the 1980s, wolves had been hunted out of existence in the country for more than a century.

There’s not much money in wool anymore, he says. Instead, local sheep farmers receive payment for land management (landpflege), which involves moving their flocks regularly so that they thin out the local meadows and forests without overgrazing them. “In the meadows the sheep are getting fat and happy,” he says. “But then we bring them up into the forest to [mix up their foraging diet].”

Gomringer has been farming sheep here since 1980. Originally from Switzerland, he moved to Germany as a young man and studied agriculture in the nearby city of Landshut. After college he became a state consultant for sheep, goats, and other livestock, and then started his own sheep pasture. Currently he’s got a small flock of 20 sheep and one small horse on his five-hectare farm in the village of Beilngries in Altmühltal. Gomringer spends about four hours a day tending to his animals. The rest of his time is given to teaching farmers how to protect their flocks from an old nemesis who has returned to threaten his herd and other livestock farms in the area — the wolf.

two men and a dog in snow near a fence

René Gomringer (left) has been farming sheep in Bavaria since 1980. When he’s not tending to his animals, which are protected with a thin electric fence, he spends his time teaching other local farmers like Robert Ebler (right) how to protect their flocks from wolves. Photo by Paul Krantz.

We stop by one of his pastures where a handful of his sheep are gathered around a pile of hay. The animals are enclosed within a simple electric fence, but this fence is more robust than most. A single line, just 20 cm above the ground, is enough to keep the sheep in place, explains Gomringer, who also works with the EU project “life Stock Protect,” that promotes humane ways to deter wolves from preying on livestock. But to protect his flock from wolves, he’s strung up several more lines, with the top line 80 cm above the ground. So far this has been sufficient, but he plans to add another line at 90 cm soon. Each day he visits the pasture at dusk and double checks that the fence is live with 3,000 to 9,000 volts.

“It’s important that the first time a wolf meets the fence, it’s really painful,” he says. “When it works right, they don’t come back. Once, maybe twice, in a life is enough.”

Learning to avoid farms and people helps the wolves as well. It keeps them out of harm’s way. Especially now, as a number of nations across Europe are relaxing national regulations that have protected the species.

The Eurasian wolf has become an object of heated controversy that pits conservationists against hunters and farmers.

When Gomringer started sheep farming in the 1980s, wolves had been hunted out of existence in the country for more than a century. They lingered on only in folklore and fairy tales where they are often portrayed as villainous creatures. But, thanks to conservation efforts, over the past couple decades, Europe’s most infamous apex predators have made an impressive comeback, reclaiming ground in Germany and across the continent. Now they find themselves caught in the same age-old conflict with a new generation of farmers, ranchers, and hunters who grew up thinking the wolf was gone for good. And, as with their North American relatives, the Eurasian wolf has become an object of heated controversy, one that pits conservationists against hunters and farmers.

The conflict, which feeds off of primal fears and the myth of man versus wild, has become a source of social and political tension. In December, under growing pressure from farming groups and conservative politicians, the European Commission proposed downgrading the wolf’s “strictly protected” status — a move that conservationists say would seriously jeopardize the species’ continued survival in Europe.

THE EURASIAN WOLF (Canis lupus lupus) — the largest subspecies of gray wolves and one of Europe’s top native predators — was once widespread across all of Europe and parts of Asia. (Its range goes as far east as the Himalayas.) But the species was exterminated from all Central and Northern European countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Remnant populations hung on in Eastern Europe (primarily Romania, the Balkans, and Poland), and Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece).

two eurasian wolves on a rock. One is sitting one is standing

“On a large scale, the overall impact of wolves on livestock in the EU is very small, but at a local level, the pressure on rural communities can be high,” notes a 2023 EU report. Photo by Tambako The Jaguar.

For decades it had seemed as if wolves would never return to the territories they had lost, but legal protections set the stage for their recovery.

The 1979 Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats introduced protections for threatened species across Europe, including apex predators. It has since been signed by more than 50 countries, including every member state of the Council of Europe. In 1992, these protections were further specified by the Habitats Directive, which outlawed the killing of five species of large carnivores: the brown bear, the wolverine, two species of lynx, and the wolf. The directive allows countries to cull these animals only where there’s “no satisfactory alternative” to preventing livestock attacks, or if they could hurt people.

These legal protections have proven to be hugely successful for wolves. Over the past three decades, the canids have successfully reestablished themselves in much of Central and Northern Europe, including France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, as well as Germany, which now has an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 wolves living within its borders.

According to the 2022 “Assessment of the conservation status of the wolf in Europe,” the species’ range has increased 25 percent in the past decade. The report notes that “all mainland European countries now have wolves,” and estimates the total population across all 27 EU member states to be 19,000 — up from 14,300 in 2016.

But as wolf populations rebound, so do conflicts between wolves and people. Established wolf territory in Europe has an average human population density of 90 persons per square kilometer (233 people per mile). Living at such close quarters means people and wolves are increasingly competing for space and resources.

According to data gathered by the EU, wolves now are killing about 65,500 heads of livestock annually, of which 73 percent are sheep and goats, 19 percent cattle and 6 percent horses and donkeys. “On a large scale, the overall impact of wolves on livestock in the EU is very small, but at a local level, the pressure on rural communities can be high,” notes the EU’s 2023 report “The situation of the wolf (canis lupus) in the European Union.”

“We have not had a single wolf attack [on humans] since 2000, since the wolf returned to Germany.”

Wolves in turn, are threatened by domestic dogs, electric fences, vehicles, and both illegal and legal hunting.

Though the Habitats Directive grants wolves some of the highest legal protections given to any nonhuman animal in Europe, it doesn’t prohibit hunting in all cases. Rather countries can create their own wolf-management plan, as long as a “viable” local population is conserved.

EU member countries have adopted different approaches to this, with some countries testing the directive by adopting so-called management plans that allow wolf culls. In 2023, for example, Sweden authorized its biggest wolf hunt since its adoption of the Bern Convention. At about 400 wolves, the country has a relatively small population. In comparison, Italy is about two-thirds the size and is home to an estimated 3,000 wolves. Still, the Swedish parliament approved the culling of 75 wolves last year.

Norwegian wolf expert Runar Næss, who has worked with captive wolves for 25 years and has monitored wild wolves in Norway and Sweden, says Sweden’s animal agriculture industry and hunting lobby pressure lawmakers to allow for hunting wolves down to minimal numbers. “Wolf populations are not controlled by biology. They’re controlled by politics now,” Næss told the Journal. “The Scandinavian population is really in danger because of a lack of genetic diversity.”

Similarly, in Switzerland, a farmers association’s concerns about a growing wolf population — currently estimated around 300 wolves in about 30 packs — have resulted in relaxed hunting restrictions. “It happens everywhere when the wolf population increases,” Næss says.

LAST SEPTEMBER, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for a downgrading of wolf protections in Europe from “strictly protected” to simply “protected” so that local authorities had “further flexibility” in managing wolf populations. The downgrade could make it easier for wolves across the EU to be killed off in the name of protecting livestock.

sheep grazing in a green-brown rolling meadow. One sheep, with ear tags, is looking right at the camera

In Germany, local sheep farmers receive payment for land management (landpflege), which involves moving their flocks regularly so that they thin out the local meadows and forests without overgrazing them. Photo by Helge Busch-Paulick / Wikipedia.

a wolf lapping water from a pond. I

Teaching wolves to avoid farms and people — via electric fences and guard dogs — helps prevent livestock predation and also keeps the wolves themselves out of harm’s way. ​Photo by Torsten Behrens.

The move was viewed favorably by hunting and farming associations that have long petitioned Brussels to allow for wolf populations to be thinned. But it left conservationists wondering if perhaps the issue has become personal for von der Leyen: One year prior, a wolf had killed her prized pony, Dolly, at her home in Lower Saxony.

“The concentration of wolf packs in some European regions has become a real danger for livestock and potentially also for humans,” von der Leyen said in a statement explaining her motives.

To some, the Commission President’s reaction was overblown. And according to Uwe Friedel, a wolf expert at BUND Naturschutz Bayern (German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation in Bavaria), the idea that wolves are dangerous to people, in particular, is completely false.

“We have not had a single wolf attack since 2000, since the wolf returned to Germany,” Friedel said. “They’re less dangerous than wild boar and less dangerous than dogs. They’re less dangerous than branches from trees falling on my head if I move through the forests.” (In fact, the European Commission’s own report notes that “no fatal wolf attacks on people have been recorded in Europe in the last 40 years.”)

While political leaders are still debating the status of the wolf ... farmers and hunters as well as wildlife activists have started taking matters into their own hands.

Overblown or not, the EU Commission president’s words, quoted in dozens of reports, succeeded in pushing anti-wolf rhetoric to the forefront of European news. Three months later, in December, the commission tabled the proposal for discussion by member states.

While political leaders are still debating the status of the wolf, in parts of the EU, farmers and hunters as well as wildlife activists have started taking matters into their own hands, with one side illegally killing wolves, even mutilating them, and the other trying to stymie their efforts by taking down hunting shelters and throwing nails on forest roads to puncture hunters’ tires.

In Germany, Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, of the Green party, also began calling for relaxing federal wolf protections. By October, Lemke presented a proposal for new livestock protection measures that would make kill permits easier to obtain when wolves attack farm animals, and by December, all of the 16 German states had adopted Lemke’s proposal. According to the proposal, a wolf kill permit can now be issued for 21 days within a one-kilometer radius of where a wolf has attacked livestock. Previously wolf hunting permits required DNA evidence proving that the same individual wolf had attacked farm animals on more than one occasion.

The country’s anti-wolf faction, however, doesn’t think the policy goes far enough. Responding to the new wolf-management plan, secretary-general of the German Farmers’ Union, Bernhard Krüsken, released a statement saying, “With such placebo solutions, livestock farming continues to be sacrificed to a misguided and unworldly wolf policy.” According to Krüsken, the only reasonable livestock protection would involve reducing the country’s wolf population significantly.

But Friedel — who thinks the policy may actually be a positive step towards achieving compromise between conservationists, farmers, and hunters — says that this argument isn’t backed up by any research.

“They never ask, ‘What will be the effects of shooting a certain amount of wolves?’” Friedel says, citing France’s failed wolf-management strategy where roughly 10 percent of the country’s wolf population was killed off starting 2018, and still there wasn’t an overall reduction in livestock loss. “It’s not the number of wolves, but the number of unprotected livestock that makes a difference.”

AFTER RENÉ GOMRINGER showed me his sheep, safely secured within the confines of his wolf-resistant electric fence, he suggested we meet a fellow sheep farmer whom he has been advising. We meet Robert Eberler in a small inn in the nearby village Kleinnottersdorf. Our lunchtime conversation is punctuated by two phone notifications. The first, on Gomringer’s phone, is an automated update about the status of his electric fence, confirming that the fence is live with 8,000 volts. The second is a message for Eberler in a local sheep farmers’ group chat.

“There was another attack in Thuringia,” he tells us, and opens a link to a news story about a “wolf massacre” that reportedly claimed 25 sheep and goats in a neighboring state. I ask Gomringer and Eberler if either of them thinks it is a good idea to hunt wolves. Both reject the idea.

a person walking in snow near sheep

Eberler grazes his flock of 400 sheep on a plot of snow-covered farmland in Altmühltal, Bavaria. Like Gomringer, he believes most sheep farmers would prefer to protect their animals rather than resort to killing wolves. Photo by Paul Krantz.

“A lone wolf is a bad wolf,” Gomringer says. “A good pack, an educated pack, is among the best protections [against predation].”

Lone wolves, lacking the support of a pack to hunt wild game, are known to be more likely to attack livestock. Therefore, wolf researchers suggest that shooting wolves, and potentially disrupting healthy packs, can lead to greater levels of livestock predation.

After lunch we visit Eberler’s flock of 400 sheep grazing on a plot of snow-covered farmland. He’s got them corralled in a space about the size of a football field. Each day he moves their pasture — taking down 10 strips of electric fencing and setting them up again on the next plot over. He has one collie who helps keep them together as he works.

Eberler is a bit nervous. He had relied on three Mastin guard dogs to protect his flock. But a couple weeks ago he lost all of them — one of the dogs died of old age, another was hit and killed by a car, and the last one mysteriously disappeared. A day ago he found a 15-centimeter scat next to his electric fence. But his herd is all accounted for at the moment.

Thanks in part to Gomringer and Eberler’s efforts to maintain solid livestock protections, wolves in this area haven’t become an issue. But in speaking with them, I began to understand why some farmers resist the added work and costs involved in implementing wolf-safe measures.

If there’s a policy solution to be found, it’s probably providing more substantial and accessible support for farmers.

Considering the thin margins of rearing sheep, farmers hesitate to add any additional overhead, and the cost of implementing livestock protections against wolves can be significant. Gomringer estimates that electric fences cost about four euros per meter to set up, and they need to be replaced every two or three years. A good guard dog can cost hundreds, if not thousands of euros initially, and also comes with recurring costs for food and, occasionally, medicine.

Theoretically, livestock protections are subsidized in Germany, but a bureaucratic application process riddled with odd requirements excludes many sheep farmers from receiving these benefits. For example, Gomringer’s farm is technically not within a 5-kilometer radius of a documented wolf den, so he is not eligible for subsidies. Just a few kilometers away, one of Eberler’s pastures is within a documented wolf zone, but he doesn’t qualify because he has been farming for three years here rather than the minimum five required by the government. Regarding dogs, the state pays only the cost for their purchase if they are properly registered, and according to Eberler, the process for doing so is unclear.

“I pay for everything,” Eberler tells me.

Experts agree that minimizing livestock kills comes down to more widespread use of protective measures. So, if there’s a policy solution to be found, it’s probably providing more substantial and accessible support for farmers to install electric fences or keep guard dogs.

Despite the challenges farmers face, Gomringer thinks that anti-wolf sentiment expressed by leaders of farmers associations or pro-hunting groups is not representative of the majority of German sheep farmers. “I think more of us would rather quietly work to protect our sheep,” he says.

Indeed, a survey of rural inhabitants across 10 EU member states, released last November, found that many of them support protecting wolves and other large carnivores, with 68 percent saying that they should be strictly protected and over two-thirds agreeing that they have the right to co-exist with humans.

But a loud minority has thus far succeeded at turning the wolf into Germany’s most politicized animal. If tensions continue running high, it’s not hard to imagine how wolves’ impressive comeback could be quickly reversed.

I MEET GREG SOMMER at the Bad Belzig train station in Brandenburg, 75 kilometers southwest of Berlin. We bike out into the surrounding fields to see if we can find any traces of the wolf packs residing nearby. Sommer, a field biologist, learned to track wildlife in the United States’ Pacific Northwest, and has since monitored wolves in Scotland and now in Germany. He also works with a local wilderness school where he leads nature walks.

While wolves can now be seen in every state in Germany, the northeastern states, which the species initially recolonized, are really the hotspots.

two men looking for tracks in a wood

Biologist Greg Sommer (right) helps track rebounding wolf populations in Germany, which is now home to 184 wolf packs, 47 wolf pairs, and 22 lone wolves. Photo by William Bryan.

The first wolves that returned to Germany crossed over from Poland, taking advantage of large, undeveloped tracts of land near the country’s northeastern border that had been used for military training in the former East Germany. The first wolf sightings in recent times were recorded around the turn of the century, with a successful breeding pair observed just a few years later.

The country now has 184 wolf packs that range in size from 3 to 10 animals, 47 wolf pairs, and 22 sedentary lone wolves, according to the 2022-23 report by the Bundesamt für Naturschutz (Federal Agency for Nature Conservation). That’s up from 167 wolf packs confirmed the year before. The state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, has the most documented packs, followed by the neighboring states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

After a 15-minute ride, we park our bikes in a thin grove and walk along the edge of a fallow field. Sommer crouches down to examine the earth. A light rain two days prior resettled the surface of the mud — what Sommer calls the substrate — and left it soft enough to record the tracks of all the critters that have since come and gone.

He waves his hand over a vague imprint. “Here we have a large dog,” he says in a gravelly voice. “Could be a wolf. Could be a dog.”

Even for a lifelong tracker, differentiating dog prints from wolf prints is a tricky game and involves a touch of deductive reasoning.

A loud minority has thus far succeeded at turning the wolf into Germany’s most politicized animal.

Sommer measures the length of print, from the tip of the front toe to the back of the paw. He’s looking for something close to 10 centimeters. This one is a little smaller, but close enough that it could be a year-old pup. Then he finds two, three, four more tracks in a row. The hind paw is coming forward enough to overlap with one of the front paws, suggesting that the canine was trotting at a quick clip. He also measures the gait — laying a measuring stick between two hind paw prints in a row. It comes to 130 centimeters, which fits a wolf profile. Another positive cue is the symmetrical toes that leave a sort of X mark across the print. Still, it’s not until he finds two more sets of large canine tracks moving in the same direction, just a few steps away, that he is willing to bet on wolves.

“So now we’ve got three dogs, two adults and one that could be a pup, all moving together in this direction. That, and the fact that there was a kill not far from here just a few days ago, makes me think we’ve found wolf tracks.” (Sommer’s colleague found a killed deer three days prior.)

“Everyone benefits from a wolf kill. Wolves eat their share, then the foxes, the hawks, the boar all come in to clean it up,” Sommer explains about their vital role in the ecosystem.

Also cast in the mud are deer and boar tracks meandering in all directions. Extensive farming of food and biofuel crops in the region, combined with the lack of large carnivores for decades, has resulted in inflated populations of ungulates — particularly boar and roe deer. “We’ve seen as many as 40 boars out here in one group,” Sommer says.

Research has shown that wolves, who prey mainly on mid-sized herbivores, help keep their populations in check, which helps maintain the overall health of their ecosystems.

Following a series of dirt roads through surrounding patches of forest and farmland on our way back to the town center, we saw more large canine tracks, and smaller fox prints and fox scat. We didn’t see any wolves, which Sommer says is to be expected. Wolves are masters at hiding from people. But even if people can’t see them, some feel threatened by them, he explains.

Asked about the root of the conflict between hunters and wolves, Sommer suggests, “The wolf creates habit change [among its prey]. When the wolf comes to a new region, the deer and boar begin to move and act differently.”

Some hunters talk about wolves as if they are unwelcome competition, but Sommer thinks there is plenty of game to go around. He suggests that hunters merely dislike their local deer getting too wary.

As for the wolves, with the exception of those hit by cars, or the unlucky few who are shot each year, they don’t seem to have too many problems adapting to life in modern-day Europe.

As Runar Næss, the Norwegian wolf expert says, “Wolves don’t care if there’s a lot of people on the planet. They will adapt. They can live pretty much anywhere where there’s prey. It’s people who are not good at adapting to wolves.”

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