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Cry wolf

Tamsin Walker
November 10, 2016

Finland's recent announcement that it is planning to continue its policy of a managed wolf cull, provoked outrage among conservationists who say we can live in harmony with the animals. But can we?

04.2016 DW Highlights April 2016 Die Wölfe von Tschernobyl

"There once was a shepherd boy who was bored as he sat on the hillside watching the village sheep. To amuse himself he took a great breath and sang out, "Wolf! Wolf! The Wolf is chasing the sheep…"

Thus begins the Aesop's Fable that ends in tragedy for the sheep and a full stomach for the wolf. Penned as a warning not to tell lies, it may, over time, have stopped fibbers from twisting the truth, but it also - along with a catalogue of other stories, poems, songs and cartoons - almost doubtless played some role in condemning the grey wolf to decades, indeed centuries of loathing and persecution. 

Hunted to extinction in central Europe more than a century ago, it is only in more recent years that they have begun to make their way back to countries such as Germany, France and Switzerland. But in many places, that return has been decidedly unwelcome.

Gabriel Schwaderer of the EuroNatur  Stiftung says there is an unnecessary degree of hysteria surrounding the reappearance of the reviled grey wolf, a fact he attributes to the trappings of contemporary existence. 

"We have completely lost knowledge of the behavior of these animals, and most people think they are terribly dangerous," he told DW, adding that despite the scaremongering about wolves attacking people, he does not regard them as a "real threat." Less so, in fact than their cousins, domestic canines.
"Every year children in Germany are killed by dogs, but nobody says there should be a dog cull because of it."

The counter argument is that there are a great many more dogs than wolves in the country, and that the situation might be very different if their numbers were on a par. Not that it is a scenario we are likely to see, for although Canis lupus is making a comeback, it's population growth is closely monitored.

Population collapse

Perhaps nowhere more than in Finland, which has just announced its intention to continue with a controlled killing of the country's 200 plus wolves. Unsurprisingly, the decision met with harsh criticism from conservation circles, who point out that the grey wolf is protected under European Union legislation.

Three wolves
Wolves life in groups which adhere to a very strict hierarchyImage: picture alliance/dpa/P. Stenberg

But Sami Niemi, Advisor to Finland's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry,  says it has thus far proved to be the most effective way of helping the population to recover from the "collapse" it suffered in light of a 2006 ruling to tighten hunting regulations.

However illogical that might sound, he explains that prior to the passing of the new law, Finland boasted some 30 wolf packs. "By 2010, we only had ten packs left," Niemi said. That amounted to 120 animals, which for a country that lives in harmony with 1,500 bears and a 3,000 strong lynx population, is strikingly low.

The problem, he believes, can be related back to the same negative perception found elsewhere in Europe. Indeed in Finland, the wolf is seen as a pest, and a dangerous one at that. So when, in 2006, people were told they would no longer be able to hunt with the same abandon, they felt they had lost control over their own safety.

"The frustration among people in rural Finland caused an increase in illegal killing," the advisor said. "And that caused the collapse of the population."

Repeated efforts to change things

The government responded to the development with several measures, including slapping unlawful hunters with fines of up to 9,000 euros and criminalizing the practice. "If someone gets caught killing a large carnivore illegally, they can be put in prison for between four months and four years."

But when those threats and consequences failed to stabilize the population,which hovered around the 110 mark for some years, the ministry decided to trial a more radical approach.

"We had a two year experiment of issuing more licenses to hunt young individuals," Niemi continued. "We did not aim to kill alpha individuals because we want to secure the livelihood of the pack, while taking into consideration fear and concerns of rural people." Fear both for themselves and their livestock.

He says giving back some degree of sanctioned control has led to a drop in illegal killings, and therefore sees the cull as a solution to the "social conflict" that prevents the growth of the Nordic country's wolf population - which is what the ministry is ultimately striving for.

Living together 

Yet even if the strategy is successful, there are serious question marks over the concept of allowing the slaughter of an animal that is protected and whosenumbers in many European countries are still so low.  

Schwaderer of EuroNatur says societies and their farmers need to rethink the way they look at and deal with wolves as opposed to simply going out and shooting them.

"There is no scientific evidence that hunting wolves has an impact on damage reduction," he said, adding that it makes more sense to take a preventative approach to living with the predators. "They are opportunistic animals and if they can have a free lunch, they will take it." 

By that, he refers to the modern methods of sheep farming, in which owners leave their flocks unattended for several days at time, and as such, the door wide open for wolves to take their pick.

He advocates the use of electric fences and guard dogs, for which farmers could apply for state-supported funding, and a return to the days of old, in which it was commonplace for a shepherd to sit with animals. Rather more diligently than Aesop's protagonist. 

Two wolves walk together
Wolves hunt in packs and together can kill large animals such as wild boar. If their diminished numbers mean they have to hunt alone, they are more likely to go for sheepImage: picture alliance/blickwinkel
Finnland Wolfsjagd
In many European countries, wolves are regarded as a pestImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Nukari
A single wolf in the bushes
Illegal hunting led to a massive decline in wolf numbers in FinlandImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/J. Ekströmer