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Conservation of wolves in Europe

The wolf is designated by the European Union as a species of “community interest” requiring protection and conservation, under the following agreements:

The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (known as the Berne Convention): the wolf is included in Appendix II as a strictly protected species. However, amongst the countries that have signed the Convention, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Turkey have made reservations excluding the wolf from this protection.

Council Directive 92/43 EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and wild flora and fauna (usually called the Habitats Directive): the wolf is listed in Annexe II (species of community interest whose conservation requires the designation of special areas), and Annexe IV (species in need of strict protection). Wolves in Spain north of the river Duero, in Greece north of the 39th parallel, in the Baltic countries and in the Finnish reindeer herding area are listed in Annexe V (species whose taking in the wild and exploitation may be subject to management measures). The directive is binding on all members of the European Union.

Hunter with wolf - Photo Peter Cairns/northshots.com

The Berne Convention has adopted an Action Plan for the conservation of wolves in Europe, which requires management of wolf populations across borders and the formulation of individual action plans for each country.

The wolf is, however, classified by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as being of ‘Least Concern’ in Europe, as although it is endangered or vulnerable at national level in several countries (Sweden/Norway, Germany, France), at European level it is increasing in both numbers and range.Wolves are however still legally hunted in a number of European countries that are not members of the European Union, including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, FYR Macedonia and Albania. Limited legal hunting is also carried out in Finland, Norway, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. Sweden has been investigated by the European Commission recently for attempting to reinstate limited hunting to control wolf numbers and increase tolerance amongst hunters and livestock owners.

In European culture, there is a deep-rooted negative image of the wolf, based on fear of wolf attacks on humans, and the loss of livestock, and therefore livelihood, to wolf depredation. These factors, together with loss of suitable habitat to development and agriculture, and reduction in numbers of prey species, are the main obstacles to conservation and recovery of wolves in Europe in the 21st century.

Depredation on livestock

Although wolf depredation on sheep, cattle, goats, horses and domestic dogs occurs throughout wolf range, the percentage of livestock killed is often low (in Slovakia between 2001 and 2003, wolves were responsible for killing less than 1% of sheep per year), compared to losses from disease and accidents. Whilst often devastating to the individual farmer, losses to wolves are economically insignificant on a national scale. The emotional response to livestock depredation by wolves, and subsequent media reporting, is a more significant factor in influencing public opinion about wolves.

Depredation occurs all year round, with peaks in late summer and autumn, and sheep and goats are more vulnerable than larger animals such as cows, particularly when grazing unprotected in summer pastures. Loss of livestock to wolves and domestic animals is probably the main factor in opposition to wolf recovery, and research on the levels and circumstances of depredation is critical in managing this conflict.

Attacks on livestock can be reduced by using protective measures. See Protecting livestock against predators for more information.

Compensation is paid by the government in many countries for livestock killed by wolves. However, to avoid abuse and dependency on compensation, this should be dependent on the owner implementing protective measures to prevent attacks. It is also sometimes difficult to differentiate between animals killed by wolves and those killed by stray dogs.

Fear of wolves

There is no doubt that wolf attacks on humans have occurred in Europe, although there are few verified reports of attacks past the beginning of the twentieth century. Today there is considered to be very little risk to humans from wolves in Europe, yet public attitudes remain negative. Research shows that wolf attacks are perceived to be more common than they actually are, and fear of wolves is still a significant factor in opposition to wolf recovery in many areas.

This fear can be effectively addressed by good education, through lectures, talks, information centres and publications about wolves. It is important that education is carried out in all sections of society, and is honest about the risks posed by wolves. Denying that wolves are potentially dangerous can be counter-productive, as anti-wolf campaigners will accuse conservationists of deliberately misleading the public. Better understanding of the risks reduces fear. Education should include discouraging the public from feeding wolves or approaching too closely, as most incidents where people have been injured by wolves in the last few years have involved animals that had become habituated to being around people and associating them with food.

Competition for Game

Wolves are also regarded by hunters as competitors for game animals such as elk, deer and wild boar, It is often claimed that there are ‘too many’ wolves and they are blamed for decreases in numbers of game animals.

Many official estimates of wolf numbers are based on figures provided by hunting associations, and are commonly exaggerated. Objective research into true numbers of wolves and their prey, together with education about predator/prey dynamics and the importance of wolves in the local ecosystem, can help reduce conflicts between wolves and hunters.

Illegal killing

Poaching is one of the major causes of wolf mortality. Illegal shooting is common, and poisoned baits are still used in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Russia, and in the Carpathian mountain range. Wolves are sometimes caught in snares and traps set for other species. In Italy it is estimated that 15-20% of the population is illegally killed each year, and in the Iberian Peninsula as many 50% are killed. Enforcement of laws protecting wolves is often inadequate.

Simply increasing enforcement will not resolve the problem of illegal killing. The reasons for resentment and hatred of wolves - depredation on livestock and competition with hunters - need to be addressed through practical support and education.

Hunting

Unrestricted hunting poses a threat to continued wolf presence. Where hunting is controlled by closed seasons, licences and quotas, these are often administered with little understanding of ecology and population dynamics. Trans-border populations are vulnerable where they are protected in one country but hunted in another; in 2000, an entire wolf pack being studied in Poland was shot by hunters after crossing the border to Slovakia, where a legal hunting season had recently been reinstated.

Some conservationists consider that controlled hunting can be part of management of viable wolf populations in Europe, and allowing this may ensure support from hunting associations for conservation measures. For some other species, such as elephants, revenue from hunting is used for conservation.

Eco-tourism provides an alternative, non-lethal, way of exploiting wolves. Tourists using local accommodation, transport, restaurants and other facilities demonstrates an economic benefit to local communities from wolf presence, and can help foster tolerance and a sense of ’ownership’ and pride in local wildlife. Eco-tourism also offers employment opportunities for former hunters as guides.

Loss of Habitat

In many countries in Europe, wolves live close to human settlements, but they need undisturbed areas and cover where they can raise pups unobserved. Forestry, especially clear-cutting, clearance of forest for agriculture, and development in rural areas, including roads, houses and tourist facilities are all putting increasing pressure on such areas. Roads, particularly when fenced, restrict movement and access to prey, and also prevent wolves dispersing to new territories. Roads and development cause fragmentation of habitat and isolate wolf populations, making them vulnerable to illegal killing disease and inbreeding, and may also prevent re-colonisation of areas of Europe where wolves are currently absent. Wolf mortality through collisions with vehicles on roads is also significant.

There is increasing recognition of the importance of creating and maintaining a network of habitat corridors between protected areas where wolves live and potentially suitable wolf habitat, to allow natural dispersion and recovery, including across national borders. Overpasses or underpasses of a suitable width and design for wildlife across major roads and railways can help reduce mortality and allow wolves to disperse or follow prey to new areas.

Loss of habitat and disturbance needs to be addressed in development plans and local planning law. Subjecting all new development in areas in areas of wolf presence or used for migration to an environmental impact study, and research on the effects of existing developments on wolf populations, can help to avoid further fragmentation and loss of habitat.

Hybridisation with Dogs

There is concern that small, isolated populations of wolves are breeding with feral domestic dogs. Hybrids have been found in Italy and Germany.

Education of dog owners and micro-chipping of all dogs may help to encourage more responsible ownership and reduce feral dog populations. Some hunters use radio collars to ensure their dogs do not get lost.

Loss of Prey Species

Habitat loss and over-hunting by humans has drastically reduced prey species in some areas of Europe, such as Portugal and the Balkans, forcing wolves to turn to livestock, increasing negative attitudes and making populations vulnerable to illegal killing.

Reintroduction or reinforcement of prey species may be necessary for conservation of wolf populations, together with careful regulation of hunting quotas of ungulates. Anthropocentric food sources such as livestock or garbage should be made inaccessible to wolves to prevent them relying on such sources.

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