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As conservationists celebrate the wolf’s comeback in Europe, livestock breeders worry about their animals. Attacks by wolves are a real threat in areas where they have recently returned – but when and where do the predators strike? adelphi’s biodiversity expert Katrina Marsden contributed to a new study that provides answers. The first lesson: protective measures do seem to work!
Katrina Marsden, Senior Manager Biodiversity at adelphi, worked with a European research team led by the University of Fribourg in Switzerland on a study examining how damage to livestock by wolves in Europe is distributed spatially and evolves over time. The researchers collected and analysed a large amount of data from 21 European countries on livestock depredation by wolves for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020. The study results have been published in the current issue of the internationally renowned journal “Biological Conservation”.
Based on this first Europe-wide data set, the scientists identified a total of 40,000 cases for the period in question. Around 100,000 animals were killed, injured or disappeared. Half of the cases involved sheep. The so-called hotspots are in south-eastern France, along the coast of Croatia, in northern Greece and in the Spanish region of Asturias. That is, many incidents occur in areas with high wolf populations and easily accessible areas where it is more difficult to protect livestock. According to the study, in the majority of the 40,000 cases only one wolf was responsible.
Wolves had been eradicated in much of Western Europe for decades or even centuries. The populations have recovered over the last few decades. In Germany, for example, there are currently 161 wolf packs, 43 pairs without offspring and 21 sedentary individuals. Most of them roam the forests and surrounding land in the north of the country. This is a welcome development for conservationists, considering that the first wolf cubs were born in the wild in 2000.
Wild animals such as roe deer, red deer and wild boar are the wolf’s main food source. But farm animals such as sheep and goats are also occasionally perceived as natural prey. This has always led to conflicts between humans and predators. In order to protect their farm animals from wolf attacks, some livestock breeders see only one solution: shooting them. But thanks to international and national laws (including The Habitats Directive), the wolf has strong protection, and killing it is illegal here and in many other countries. On a practical level, exterminating all wolves from an area would be a difficult undertaking. Apart from that, wolves play a key role in the ecosystem as large predators. This means that other, more effective measures are needed.
The researchers counted most attacks by wolves in August and September, presumably because the livestock spend more time outdoors at these times. Incidents occur later in the year in northern Europe and earlier in the south. Wolf prevalence is also dependent on climatic factors and local farming and breeding practices. With that in mind, the authors used various factors for their statistical analysis procedure, including:
The researchers determined the following trends from the study: The hotspots are extensively used habitats that offer a mix of open grassland and deciduous forests. The number of incidents in areas recently occupied by wolves often initially increases rapidly. That is because the protective measures used in the past have been abandoned with the absence of large carnivores, the scientists assume. It is also likely that newly settled wolves may be getting used to the hunting conditions and see livestock as easy prey.
Overall, as wolves spread, so did the number of attacks – which is no surprise. More surprising is the fact that damage caused by wolves appears to be decreasing in 39% of all regions surveyed. The authors interpret this as follows: The return of wolves could result in livestock owners adopting more protective measures such as electric fences and livestock guarding dogs, resulting in a reduction in the damage wolves cause over time. Unfortunately, the available data do not allow full testing of this assumption as protection measures are not measured to the individual farm level.
The authors therefore recommend that the responsible authorities collect information about the effectiveness of various protective measures and the damages occurring on protected and unprotected flocks. Since the evidence from this study and numerous smaller pilots does suggest that protection measures work, managing authorities are advised to financially and technically support breeders by putting funds and advice at their disposal. EU financing through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can be used to fund protection but certain countries, including many German States do not choose to take up this opportunity.
We invite regional and national authorities to continue integrating their damage data into accessible databases. Public access to this information has a lot of potential to inform the mitigation of wolf-livestock conflicts across Europe.
- Katrina Marsden, biodiversity expert at adelphi and co-author
As Europe’s wolf population grows and expands, reducing conflict between livestock breeders and predators is imperative. To do this, it is also necessary to observe and analyse the trends in individual regions over a longer period of time – especially after the introduction of additional, practicable herd-protection measures (electric fences, livestock guarding dogs, shepherding), after changes in husbandry practices or on a case by case basis, the culling of individual problem wolves. Measuring a declining trend could legitimise the measures taken and confirm that they are helping to manage the conflicts. Conversely, near-stable or even increasing trends in regions with a high number of incidents indicate that current measures appear to be insufficient and/or ineffective. Additional attention is required here.
Wolves are particularly adaptable. They need a territory with plenty of prey and retreats to raise their young. If we set effective and deterrent boundaries in the form of livestock protection, for the wolf, it will likely learn to avoid this particular prey-source. When it comes to reducing conflict, it is important to take the concerns and challenges of livestock breeders seriously as this is also in the interest of long-term coexistence with the wolf.
Close collaboration between different stakeholders involved in the management of wolves and other large carnivores is therefore essential. This can help to bring better balance to the costs and benefits of large carnivores return. Without this, there is a danger that they fall on a small sector of rural society. We need to recognise and be grateful for the efforts many breeders have made to adapt their practices under difficult conditions.
Contact: Katrina Marsden, Senior Manager Biodiversity
adelphi has many years of experience and research work on the coexistence of humans and large carnivores is also, reflected in their management of the Secretariat of the EU Platform on coexistence between people and large carnivores since its initiation in 2014 as well as additional platforms at the local level and a regional level platform in the Dinaric-Balkan-Pindos region.