Europe’s wolf packs are racing up the political agenda as farmers seek to protect their flocks from the resurgent predators.
After being largely hunted to extinction across Western Europe, gray wolves are returning to their ancient haunts in rapidly increasing numbers. From the French Alps to the forests of Germany, these lean, keen-scented hunters are reigniting an ancient conflict between wolf and farmer.
Some politicians are rallying to defend the shepherds and insist wolf populations are now such a threat that farmers should have more freedom to bypass EU rules that forbid shooting them. A mere 300 wolves in France slaughtered some 10,000 sheep last year. In 2016, France had to pay €3.2 million in compensation for wolf kills, up from €2.8 million in 2015.
“If you can’t eliminate animals that attack, the situation won’t get any better,” said José Bové, a Green member of the European Parliament, who was formerly a sheep farmer in Aveyron in southern France. “All the efforts to protect shepherds, whether it’s fences or dogs or whatever — none of them have worked.”
The issue is driving a wedge between farmers and environmentalists. Shepherds out to protect their vulnerable flocks face strong headwinds from an increasingly powerful conservationist camp that views the wolf as a key ally in rebuilding Europe’s wild countryside and improving biodiversity.
Many farmers reckon wolves are now numerous enough for Brussels to allow killings.
While accepting the need for modest culls, hugely popular French Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot said in July that he “rejoices” at the return of the wolf. His German counterpart Barbara Hendricks recently told German media that farmers couldn’t behave like they were in the “Wild West” by ignoring the law and shooting wolves.
Some farmers and hunters have already taken the law into their own hands, becoming gun-toting anti-wolf vigilantes.
Luigi Boitani, a biology professor and wolf specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said these tensions are simply the continuation of a conflict running for “3,000 years.”
“Wolves have always been admired, and even worshipped. But also hated by those who live closer to them — by shepherds. “There are not many solutions: Either you execute all the wolves, or you execute all the sheep, or you find a way in between.”
Howls of protest
The main grievance from farmers is the EU’s Habitats Directive outlawing wolf killings across most of the bloc. It allows countries to cull wolves where there’s “no satisfactory alternative” to preventing livestock attacks, or if they could hurt people. To farmers that means pulling out their guns, but their opponents advocate alternatives such as electric fences or marking off areas as a no-go zones for wolves.
Sweden, a densely forested country with hundreds of wolves,has repeatedly challenged Brussels by issuing hunting licenses. The Commission has cautioned Stockholm on several occasions and has threatened to pursue legal action.
Swedish liberal MEP Fredrick Federley argued his country’s approach works because it keeps wolves in check while avoiding vigilante killings. “Alas, the Commission’s intention to strengthen the wolf population in Sweden might backfire [if] they do not allow local hunting,” he said. “Local acceptance is the only security any species really can rely on,” he added.
European gray wolves | Raymond Roig/AFP via Getty Images
The political arguments over how to handle wolves even turned into an electoral issue this month in the German state of Lower Saxony, a farming stronghold home to 10 percent of the country’s sheep.
In an overture to rural voters, the center-right Christian Democrats wanted to include wolves under hunting legislation to allow killings. The state’s ruling Social Democrat-Green coalition, however, opposed the change. The Social Democrats ultimately emerged as winners.
Those divisions are playing out at federal level too. Hendricks, a Social Democrat, regards the conservation climate for wolves as “unfavorable,” while Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt has responded to pressure for a cull. In a letter sent to the European Commission in September, seen by POLITICO, Schmidt urged European Commissioner for Environment Karmenu Vella to make it easier to shoot wolves.
“Why does the EU rank the wolf as a critically endangered animal species? It’s green ideology,” said Lucas von Bothmer, the editor-in-chief of German hunting magazine Jäger. “It all comes down to the question: Where is the upper limit to the wolf population?”
In France, where Paris is drawing up a new wolf policy that it hopes to launch in January, the government is displaying a more united front.
Ecology Minister Hulot incensed core supporters in July when he used the exemption to EU conservation law to allow a cull of some 40 wolves — about 10 percent to 13 percent of France’s total — following intense pressure from farmers.
“I hope that no one doubts my boundless love for wildlife, and the fact that I rejoice at … the wolf returning to our territory,” Hulot said in a special video explaining his decision. “But on the other hand, who can ignore the psychological pressure and the dismay of shepherds, with thousands of sheep killed by wolves?”
French Farm Minister Stéphane Travert insisted last week that he still saw a place for the wolf. “The goal is to ensure zero attacks. That doesn’t mean zero wolves too.”
The good shepherd
Many farmers, however, reckon wolves are now numerous enough for Brussels to allow killings.
“We’re asking that France revisit the Habitats Directive so that wolves are classified as a pest,” said Jean-Noël Verdier, the president of French farmers’ union Coordination Rurale, in France’s southern département of Aveyron.
Wolf numbers have risen exponentially in both France and Germany. Two animals crossed the Alps from Italy into France in 1992, having all but vanished from the country in the 1930s, according to France’s National Hunting and Wildlife Agency. The agency estimates that there are now between 250 and 350.
In Germany, a pair of wolves crossed the border from Poland and successfully bred pups in 2000 — creating the country’s first indigenous pack since the 19th century, according to a German federal government wolf advisory office DBBW. The country now has 47 packs, each between three and 10 animals.
Seemingly low numbers still have an outsized effect, shepherds say. It is farmers in the big open country of France, who have the biggest losses. French authorities last year compensated farmers for 10,000 wolf kills, and the packs killed nearly 8,000 animals by September 30 this year too, according to official statistics. In Germany’s farms, where barns are more common, wolves killed only 33 farm animals in 2002. That total death toll in Germany rose to more than 700 over over the next 13 years.
“Wolf attacks are more numerous, they happen day and night,” said Joseph Joufray, a seventh-generation sheep farmer in Hautes-Alpes, a departément in southeastern France.
He said he has taken to moving his sheep indoors to prevent attacks instead of leaving them to graze on mountain pasture, which he explained adds 40 hours of labor to an already 80-hour work week.
“Our ancestors fought to the end to eliminate them,” Joufray added, referring to wolves. “We’ve been fighting this since 1992.”
Some are taking matters into their own hands.
Authorities found an illegally shot wolf in Lower Saxony on October 10 — only months after German conservation NGO Naturschutzbund warned that such slayings were no longer isolated events and that Schmidt’s pro-cull position contributed to the problem.
In August — just weeks after Paris placed 40 wolves on a cull list — members of France’s “anti-wolf brigades” killed three wolf cubs. The brigades operate under France’s National Hunting and Wildlife Agency (ONCFS) and gather local hunters to shoot problem wolves.
Activists pointed out that the cubs posed no threat to livestock and called the killings a massacre. ONCFS’ head office, as well as several regional branches, did not respond to calls or emails from POLITICO regarding the anti-wolf brigades.
Pierre Rigaux, one of France’s best-known wolf activists, said the brigades “kill what they can.”
Some activists who oppose killings are nonetheless alive to the reality of the situation. “For conservationists, it’s a total conflict,” said Christian Hierneis, a member of the leadership of environmental NGO BUND, in Bavaria. “We want that [wolves] come back. But we also want the sheep, the shepherds, and not factory farming. What we want are protective measures,” he added.
The Commission is well aware that its policy causes headaches. Speaking to young hunters last month, Commission environment chief Vella said that Brussels was working with national capitals to “defuse tensions” and promote coexistence with large carnivores. He pledged the Commission would clarify flexibilities in the rules in order to manage species better.
Boitani said Brussels must implement a zoning policy that would allow wolves to multiply in some regions but bar them from others.
However, since some regions would lose out, he admitted that such a fix was “politically, extremely difficult.”