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Return of the wolf – how we can live together

20 May 2019

As wolves re-establish themselves in the Netherlands, an international team of researchers has put forward recommendations for protecting wolves as a species and preventing them from attacking livestock. They argue that the best combination for both humans and wolves is to use fencing to separate wolves from livestock, take action to influence how humans and wolves interact and ensure sufficient wildlife is available as prey. The researchers, who include scientists from the Polish Mammal Research Institute, University of Groningen and Utrecht University, have published their findings in the journal Biological Conservation.

European wolf in Poland. Credit: Annelies van Ginkel (RUG)
European wolf in Poland. Credit: Annelies van Ginkel (RUG)

Increasing numbers of wolves are being spotted in the Netherlands. There were at least ten sightings last year and some of them appear to have taken up residence. More than a century ago, there were also wolves in the Netherlands, until they were eradicated. In a busy and densely populated country like the Netherlands, encounters with wolves are increasingly likely to result in conflict. The question of how humans and wolves can live together often elicits strong emotions. Through their analysis, the researchers hope to contribute to an objective, evidence-based assessment of the options for dealing with wolves.

Tackling the causes

According to the researchers, current strategies for tackling the return of wolves are often too reactive. Any wolves causing problems can be shot and farmers are compensated for any loss of livestock. But the researchers argue that the strategy should focus on the source of the problem: the interaction between humans and wolves in areas dominated by humans. “We need to wise up and act before shooting becomes standard policy again,” says ecologist Joris Cromsigt, assistant professor at Utrecht University.

Protecting sheep

In order to regulate the interaction between humans and wolves, hardly any action has so far been taken in the Netherlands or most Western European countries where wolves are becoming re-established. The greatest risk of conflict with wolves is in areas of intensive livestock farming, where farmers still have no way of protecting their animals. Last year in the Netherlands, wolves killed more than 160 sheep. According to the researchers, this calls for a proactive approach.

A different effect

Strategies currently used to manage the wolves – population control, the use of fencing, protection and compensation, and influencing the behaviour of wolves and humans – all have a different effect on wolves and the number of conflicts. This is the conclusion reached by the researchers following an extensive analysis of existing research. Programmes to manage the size of the wolf population might seem to be the obvious solution, but they often fail to solve the conflict and can even make it worse. This is especially the case if management methods differ between countries. These programmes are also in breach of European legislation.

Keeping wolves and livestock apart

Installing fencing, a method used widely in other parts of the world, is an effective, small-scale way of keeping wolves outside areas with a lot of livestock. However, on a larger scale, this strategy is impractical in the fragmented European landscape and especially not on the scale required to maintain a healthy wolf population. This kind of habitat fragmentation is also disadvantageous for other animals.

Wildlife management

Protecting livestock combined with financial compensation for affected farmers is primarily effective if the deer population is also allowed to recover at the same time. The presence of sufficient wildlife makes wolves less likely to attack livestock. “The fact that high levels of natural wildlife can help reduce the impact of wolves on farmers is not yet sufficiently understood. This calls for drastic changes in wildlife management in many areas,” says ecologist Chris Smit, associate professor at the University of Groningen.

“If we make the landscape more attractive for wolves, by increasing wildlife populations and connecting nature reserves more actively, the wolf’s resurgence can also help enhance the quality of Dutch nature”, adds Cromsigt.

Mutual respect

Finally, the researchers argue that there are great benefits to be had from nurturing mutual respect between wolves and humans. “The way in which people behave in areas with wolves is a key factor in whether accidents occur,” says ecologist Dries Kuijper, associate professor at the Mammal Research Institute. According to the researchers, it is important for people to take a balanced view of wolves: the animal’s resurgence is of great ecological value, there is very little danger to humans, but these are very large predators and it is therefore important to encourage appropriate behaviour. “We need to re-educate ourselves on how to deal with wolves. Wolves need to be reminded of the need to steer clear of humans. If wolves and humans avoid each other, this reduces the chance of problems to a minimum,” says Kuijper.

Wolf

Publication

The research was conducted jointly by scientists from the Mammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences and the universities of Utrecht, Groningen, Tilburg, Freiburg (Germany), the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and the Nelson Mandela University in South Africa.

Biological Conservation 2019: Keep the wolf from the door: how to conserve wolves in Europe’s human-dominated landscapes?

Dries Kuijper, Marcin Churski, Arie Trouwborst, Marco Heurich, Chris Smit, Graham I.H. Kerley, Joris P. G. M. Cromsigt

Last modified:29 May 2019 1.24 p.m.
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