Grey Wolf (Canis lupus)
Wolves were was once found all over Europe, including the British Isles, but as human populations expanded and forests were cleared for agriculture, they were increasingly persecuted. By the mid-eighteenth century wolves had disappeared from Britain, and by the mid-twentieth century only small, isolated populations survived in western Europe and in the remote mountainous regions of central and eastern Europe.
Wolves have made a comeback in many countries in recent years, due to increased environmental awareness, legal protection and conservation measures, but as their numbers and range increase they are once again coming into conflict with people.
What is a wolf?
The wolf is the largest member of the canid (dog) family. An adult male weighs around 30-50 kg and stands up to a metre high at the shoulder, with a body length of 1.8-2m. Females are slightly smaller, weighing between 25-40 kg. Most wolves have a greyish brown coat, but they can vary in colour from white to black.
European wolves all belong to the species Canis lupus; the grey wolf. There are two recognised subspecies; the Iberian wolf, Canis lupus signatus, of Portugal and Spain, is a slightly smaller wolf with a reddish coat and distinctive dark marks on the front legs that give it its Latin name (signatus = marked); and Canis lupus italicus, an average-sized wolf found in Italy, France and Switzerland.
Where are wolves found?
Wolves were formerly present across the whole of Europe, including the UK, where they became extinct over three hundred years ago. Today the largest numbers of wolves outside Russia are found in the Carpathian region of central and eastern Europe, including Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. Smaller populations can be found in Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, Belarus, the Balkans, the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), Italy, France and Switzerland.
Since the start of the 21st century, wolves have returned to Germany, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Recovery has been natural - there have been no wolf reintroductions in Europe. There are thought to be a total of around 16,000 -18,000 wolves in Europe. For up to date population statistics and a map, visit the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe's wolf page here.
Where do wolves live?
Wolves are extremely adaptable and live in diverse habitats, from tundra to thick woodland, mountainous regions and Mediterranean scrubland and plains. They can also tolerate human proximity, and in some areas have been known to enter towns and villages, usually in search of food. Today, as a result of persecution, wolves are mainly found in remote mountainous and forested areas
What do wolves eat?
Wolves are carnivores, and mainly prey on large ungulates (hoofed mammals) such as elk, red deer, roe deer and wild boar, but also hares, beavers and domestic livestock. A wolf eats around 2-6 kg of meat a day; as they cannot always find food every day (in Bialowieza Primeval Forest, in Poland, it is estimated that average sized pack of four to five wolves preying mainly on red deer and wild boar, will kill once every two days) they can eat up to 10 kg in one sitting and then fast until the next successful hunt. They will also eat birds, small mammals, reptiles, insects, plants and berries. In some areas of Europe, such as the north of Portugal, where wild prey is scarce, wolves depend almost entirely on domestic livestock.
How do wolves live?
Wolves in Europe live in packs of around 2-7 animals, occupying a territory of between 100 - 500 square kilometres. The pack usually comprises a breeding pair, (although sometimes, particularly if there is high mortality through hunting or other causes, more than one pair will breed), and offspring from previous years, and sometimes unrelated wolves. There is a hierarchy in the pack, with the breeding pair dominant over other members. This hierarchy is enforced by shows of dominance and ritualised aggression between pack members. This rarely results in fighting, as injuries would not be beneficial to the functioning of the pack. Recent studies of wild wolves have shown that the hierarchy is not nearly as rigid as once thought, and some biologists no longer use the term ‘alpha’ male and female, preferring to think of the wolf pack as a family, with the parents making the most important decisions, and other members taking responsibility for different aspects of pack life.
Wolves use a wide range of facial expressions, body language, growls and barks, as well as howling, to communicate with each other. The exact reasons for howling are not known, although possible reasons include keeping separated pack members in touch, increasing social bonding upon waking or setting off on a hunt, expressing alarm at an intruder, or warning neighbouring wolf packs that a territory is occupied and defended (a pack of wolves will howl in different pitches, and the discordant sound often makes it sound like there are more wolves than there actually are). It is not true that wolves howl at the moon.
Wolves breed only once a year; mating takes place in February or March, and 4-7 pups are born 61-63 days later, in April or May, in a den dug in a bank or under tree roots, or in a hollow or under a rocky overhang. Pups are born blind and deaf; their eyes open after 10-13 days, and they can hear after 21 days. They stay in the den until they are about 4 weeks old, when they begin to explore the immediate surroundings. Pups are weaned by 10 weeks. The whole pack helps to take care of the pups, regurgitating food and ‘baby-sitting’ while the mother goes hunting.
When the pups are about 8 weeks old, they are moved from the den to a safe place above ground, often near water, known as a rendezvous site, where they have more space to play and develop their strength and skills, while the adults are away hunting. By their first winter, wolf pups must be strong enough to travel and hunt with the pack. Mortality amongst pups is high; usually over half do not survive to adulthood. Causes include starvation, disease and hunting and poaching.
Young wolves disperse from the pack at 1-2 years old to find a mate and new territory, often travelling large distances; wolves have dispersed over 1,000 km from Russia and Finland to Sweden and Norway, although in a study in Minnesota, USA, most dispersing wolves travelled no more than 50 km. Some wolves stay with the pack into adulthood, and may eventually replace the breeding pair.