1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Killing wolves could soon become easier in Germany

October 13, 2023

A new proposal in Germany could make it easier to hunt wolves when they cause problems for farmers. The EU is also considering changes to wolf-protection laws.

A wolf
Wolves are flourishing in Europe, but increasing contact with humans and livestock is causing tensions.Image: Bernd Thissen/dpa/picture alliance

Children are raised on stories about big bad wolves: how they prowl around forests, disguise themselves as sheep or grandmas, and raze houses to eat little pigs living inside. Now hunting wolves could soon become easier in Germany.  

A single attack would be enough to justify killing any wolf within a radius of one kilometer for 21 days, a new proposal states.

The proposal was put forward by Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke of the Greens. She describes the proposal as a "practical and legally secure solution that complies with the strict EU species protection requirements."  

In November, the Environment Ministers’ Conference of the states will decide on the proposal, which could come into effect on January 1, 2024, if accepted. 

Lemke emphasizes that it is essential to respond to the increasing number of livestock attacked by wolves, as otherwise, the acceptance of wolves is at risk. On the other hand she also states, "The wolf belongs in our landscape."

"Simplifying or accelerating the removal of so-called 'problem wolves' is a pragmatic step to try to reassure the minds of affected livestock owners and address the concerns of the rural population, especially in areas with high numbers of livestock attacks," Niko Balkenhol, an ecologist at University of Göttingen, Germany, told reporters.

“It is possible that, instead of the 'problem wolves,' unobtrusive wolves' [which did not attack livestock] are culled. Whether the measure can actually ease the conflict situation with wolves needs to be objectively evaluated from a scientific perspective," Balkenhol added.

Wolves: good for ecosystems but deadly for livestock

We learn early that wolves are a menace in the dark, a symbol of savagery that lurks beyond the safety of urban society.

We learn to fear wolves, either through fables or experience. Our fear of wolves almost drove them to extinction in the 1800s. Once widespread in Europe, mass-eradication policies decimated wolf populations. About a hundred years later, wolves made a comeback .

Today, they're thriving — around 17,000 wolves live in mainland Europe and are steadily returning to their ancestral homelands.

The science suggests that wolves are good for ecosystems as a whole. Studies in the US and Canada suggest that wolves have a restorative effect on ecosystems when they are reintroduced to their habitats.

But not everyone is happy about the wolves' return to Europe. Some reports suggest that wolves are increasingly encroaching on human civilization, attacking livestock and, on occasion, humans.

Farmers in the northern German state of Lower Saxony have felt the worst of such wolf attacks. Between January and August 2023, more than 600 animals were killed there by wolves.

Farmers unions have been putting pressure on the German government to respond to the attacks. Lemke's new proposal is an answer to these pressures.

But attacks have led farmers to take matters into their own hands, often illegally hunting wolves.

EU under pressure to change wolf protection laws

Rising tensions have led the European Commission to step in, including its president, Ursula von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen has been at the center of discussions around wolves since 2022, when a wolf killed her pony, Dolly. Von der Leyen put a kill order on the wolf, identified as GW950m, but it managed to avoid hunters and is thought to be at-large.

In a statement on September 4, 2023, Von der Leyen said:

"The concentration of wolf packs in some European regions has become a real danger for livestock and potentially also for humans. I urge local and national authorities to take action where necessary. Indeed, current EU legislation already enables them to do so."

The European Commission is now to decide whether to modify the protection of wolves within the EU, potentially allowing easier hunting rights.

Dead sheep lie on the ground outside an historic-looking building in Ticino, Switzerland
Protesting farmers dumped dead sheep in front of a government building in Switzerland after the livestock were killed by wolvesImage: Pablo Gianinazzi/Keystone/picture alliance

Farmer and hunter lobby groups are pushing for a downgrade of wolf protection laws and less bureaucracy when they apply for permission to hunt wolves.

"There is a need for a faster and more efficient culling of wolves that repeatedly prey on grazers, as well as a reliable method for controlling wolf populations," said Joachim Rukwied, the President of the German Farmers' Association, in a statement in August 2023.

Farmers: Let us hunt wolves or traditional farming will vanish!

Rukwied said in the same statement that if politicians did not tackle the wolf issue, grazing in Germany would disappear.

"Grazing cattle, sheep, goats and horses in the landscape would be a thing of the past," he said.

Conservationists, on the other hand, and animal protection groups, are urging the EU Commission to keep wolf protection laws as they are.

"Wolves are part of the evolutionary history of Europe's landscapes. We almost eradicated them once, so we need to protect their place in our ecosystems," Fabien Quetier, a conservation expert at non-profit organization Rewilding Europe, told DW.

The science says wolves help restore ecosystems

Quetier is concerned that moves to make it easier to hunt wolves would have a knock-on effect on European wildlife.

In the 1990s, reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone National Park in the US helped restore river and forest ecosystems. The region had been plagued by erosion and defoliation due to rising deer and elk populations.

The wolves hunted the deer and elk and also changed their behavior patterns so that they avoided the valley and gorges in Yellowstone National Park. As a result, wildlife began to regenerate, with plants, insect, bird and mammalian species making their own comebacks. It even reduced river erosion.

There is evidence in Europe that reintroducing wolves has generated movement among prey, which decreases the pressure these animals have on crops or young trees. 

"The bottom line is that wolves help maintain ecosystem balance," Quetier said.

An American Bison in a wild-looking field in Yellowstone National Park, USA
Wolves are credited with having helped restore ecosystems in Yellowstone National Park when they were reintroduced there in 1995Image: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

Our fear of wolves: a return to the 1800s?

Wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. A WWF report found that there were a total of 12 attacks in Europe and North America combined — over an 18 year period — from 2002 to 2020.

But Quetier is concerned that attitudes towards wolves are influenced by the same kind of fear people felt in the 1800s.

"There's a danger wolf eradication programs could start again. The effects of wolf hunting and poisoning would have horrible effects on the environment," said Quetier.

Attitudes to wolves grew more positive in the 1970s when wolves gained better legal protection so hunters were banned from shooting or poisoning them. All this was due to a cultural shift in how carnivores are viewed in the wild.

"There was a change in mindset about wolves that led to their protection. As the environmental crises has marched on, people's concerns for wildlife grew, and this is reflected in policies we have to protect wildlife," Quetier said.

The task for the European Commission now is to explore how wolves and humans can best live side-by-side, while minimizing the costs incurred on rural communities and agriculture. 

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany
Editor's note: This text was originally published on September 9, 2023. It was updated on October 13, 2023, with news of the Federal Environment Minister's statement. 

DW journalist Fred Schwaller wears a white T-shirt and jeans.
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred