Are we crying wolf? A European tale of farmers vs. nature

Farmers accuse wolves of killing sheep and want to shoot it, environmentalists say it is still in need of protection. [Shutterstock]

Wolves have made a comeback in Europe thanks to years of strict protection. But not everyone is happy and politicians are struggling to find the right balance between protecting nature and helping farmers.

Grey wolves (Canis Lupus) were the most widely distributed mammals in the northern hemisphere, from Canada to Russia and from Sweden to Saudi Arabia. But by the 1990s, they became mostly extinct in Europe due to disappearing habitat and deliberate killings.

In 1992, Europe’s Habitat Directive listed the wolf as a species in need of strict protection. A ban on hunting (except in case of attack or under a strict quota system) helped the grey wolf come back from the brink of extinction in Europe.

As of 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the grey wolf population as stable on the global level. The IUCN will publish a new assessment in March next year, showing a further increase in the number of wolves in Europe.

But in certain European areas (Scandinavia, the Alps between France and Italy, and the forests between Poland and Germany) the species is still vulnerable, says Luigi Boitani, a biologist with Rome’s Sapienza University and IUCN’s wolf expert.

Yet, he says, their number doesn’t really matter much. “What matters is their conflict with humans and the damage caused. It is the single sheep a farmer might lose. It is political”.

Wolf politics

Italy rejected on Wednesday (6 December) a national management plan for the wolf, which included preventive measures such as herding dogs, electric fencing and night shelters for sheep.

The draft version, which included a controversial proposal by Alpine regions to cull 5% of wolves in Italy, was first suspended for two years and then rejected, demonstrating the divisiveness of wolf politics.

There are an estimated 2,000 wolves in Italy and the country spends about €1.5 million in compensation every year.

France, where only 360 animals killed 10,000 sheep according to the national wildlife agency, spent €3.2 million last year. But in France, regulated culling is allowed.

The French wolf management plan by the ministries of environment and agriculture has earmarked 40 wolves for 2018. It also proposed to condition compensation on the adoption of preventive measures by farmers – such as herding dogs, fencing, and additional shepherds. The government pays for 80%, the farmers cover the rest.

But for farmers, this is not enough: “We can’t accept to tie compensation to these measures because you can’t implement them everywhere. It means you succumb to the wolf, and forego livestock farming in mountain areas, for example, where it is the only possible activity,” said Christine Valentin, wolf-lead at the French chamber of agriculture.

French farmers demand to be able to shoot wolves – and not just in case of attack, but whole wolf packs.

“It is a protected species, you have to have a certain number, but it does not need to be everywhere,” said Valentin.

Shooting oneself in the foot

But culling wolves may be counterproductive. A 2014 study in the US suggested that killing wolves can increase the risk that they prey on livestock in the future.

The study author thinks this is due to a change in the pack structure: wolves are led by an alpha male and female. If either or both are killed, the pack breaks up in several breeding pairs, leading to a higher overall population.

Eugène Reinberger of wildlife NGO Ferus argues that something similar is happening in France: as the number of killings rises, the size of packs decreases but predation increases.

Commenting on this finding, a Commission spokesperson said: “It is important to recall that the conflicts associated with the conservation of the wolf in our European human-dominated landscapes cannot be addressed only or mainly through culling.”

But culling remains an option, the executive reminds, “so long as it is not detrimental to the conservation status of the species and provided there is no satisfactory alternative to protect the safety of the public or livestock”.

Cry wolf

As wolf populations in Europe grow and farmers rediscover this primordial enemy, environmental groups are fighting on behalf of the wolf.

The European Alliance for Wolf Conservation, a group of NGOs from Spain, France, Portugal and Belgium came to Brussels on Monday (4 December) to convince the Commission of the need to maintain high safeguards for this predator, which they think gets blamed – and killed – unjustly.

In the UK, where the wolf is long extinct, every year 20,000 sheep and lamb fall prey to stray dogs – something they claim could be happing in other countries and be blamed on wolves.

In Spain, where culling is authorised if attacks are recurrent, in 2016 the environmental police uncovered a fraud where livestock herders falsely claimed €200,000 in compensation for wolf attacks, with the complicity of foresters.

“If the number of attacks are false, they are authorising wolf killings, which shouldn’t happen,” said Juan Luis García, responsible for the police operation.

“In this case, the wolf was not guilty. It is not completely innocent either, but perhaps the statistics in Spain, like in Europe, are not entirely clear.”

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