What comes to mind when you see the word ‘wolf’? A dangerous predator or a creature sadly misunderstood? Present day attitudes to the wolf are fiercely divided, causing conflict whenever new management strategies are debated. Most recently, Switzerland was the battleground for a controversial change to hunting rules, which allowed a national cull of the species and was met with furious outcry from environmental groups.
A bit of background…
The wolf was hunted almost to extinction in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Consequently, livestock farming thrived for many years in areas which once were wolf habitat, such as mountain slopes.
However, whilst farming benefited, biodiversity suffered; large carnivores have a vital role in Europe’s ecosystems. Wolves are a keystone species, meaning they impact other wildlife both directly and indirectly. Predation keeps prey populations from excessive growth and provides carrion for scavenger species. Indirectly, it encourages fear behaviour from prey species, keeping them moving constantly. This reduces overgrazing in any specific area and increases plant dispersal. The result is that more different species can inhabit an environment, increasing biodiversity.
As Europe’s biodiversity loss became a greater concern, international agreements were made to protect endangered species. Signed in Switzerland in 1982, the Bern Convention lists the grey wolf (Canis lupus) as ‘strictly protected’. Under this convention, deliberate killing of strictly protected species is prohibited in all forms.
These measures have been successful; since the millennium the wolf has seen a gradual comeback in Europe. Whilst celebrated at first as a conservation success, in more recent years this population growth has begun to cause human-wildlife conflict. Wolf numbers in Switzerland have grown rapidly, from around 80 in 2020 to 300 in 2023, and rural communities have suffered from increasing livestock predation.
The great debate
Opinions on how best to manage this emerging conflict are hugely divided. Livestock farmers and affected rural communities have been calling for more relaxed hunting regulations for several years. In response, regulations changed to allow shooting of “problem individuals”, that is any specific wolf that is known to have killed a certain number of livestock. Identifying the correct individual required DNA analysis, making hunting difficult and several cases were reported in which the wrong wolf was shot by mistake.
Since 2022, laws have become gradually more relaxed, and in early 2023 one canton (Swiss state or region) voted that a whole pack should be culled in order to protect livestock. In June last year, the Swiss parliament approved changes to hunting restrictions that allowed culling of wolf packs where agriculture was threatened.
But is culling really the only answer? A resounding “no” from conservationists, who tend to champion guard dogs and deterrent fencing as the ideal livestock protection strategies. A 2020 report from Germany, another country facing growing wolf populations and increasing conflict, also suggested these protection measures are actually more effective than culling.
Meanwhile in Switzerland, livestock kills decreased in 2023 (the first decrease seen in years), despite an increase in wolf population. This came after government funding for livestock protection was raised to 5.7 million Swiss francs (£5.2 million) in 2022, from just 4.4 million in 2021. However last year funding fell again, resulting in protection plans going unfinished.
December 2023: The war on wolves
Due to rising pressure from cantons with the highest numbers of wolves, the Swiss government gave in and authorised a large scale cull which proposed the eradication of 12 whole wolf packs between the 1st of December and 31st of January. Further wolf packs would have only their young killed.
The cull was met with passionate protest from environmentalists, NGOs, and wildlife protection groups, 158 of whom sent a letter opposing the cull to the Department of Environment two days before the hunting was scheduled to begin.
While hunters and gamekeepers worked their way through their hit-list, Switzerland’s oldest nature conservation organisation, Pro Natura, got together with WWF and BirdLife Switzerland and made an appeal against the cull. This appeal finally forced the Federal Office for the Environment to suspend hunting on December 13th – for the time being. Ten wolves had already been shot and killed in Valais canton.
End of the story?
Far from it. While debates over the cull continued in Switzerland, the European Commission took the opportunity to reconsider the place of the wolf in European legislation. On 20th December, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen proposed a downgrade in the Bern Convention status of the wolf, from ‘strictly protected’ to ‘protected’, which would make hunting of the species much easier. The Bern Convention is the world’s oldest convention for habitat and species protection, and no species has ever been downlisted before.
Having foreseen this political bombshell, a new open letter had already been published opposing a change to the wolf’s protection status- this time signed by nearly 300 organisations. Meanwhile, conservation organisations such as the WWF and IFAW have called upon EU member states to reject the proposal, pointing out the lack of scientific evidence to back it, and accusing von der Leyen of having political motivations. (Incidentally, the European Commission president is also a victim of livestock predation herself, having lost a horse to wolves several years ago.)
Why does this story matter?
The sad tale of the ‘big bad wolf’ represents a much bigger issue, and its conclusion could affect the fate of many more protected species and habitats in Europe. The outcome of the European Commission’s proposal will set a precedent for changes to the Bern convention and, if approved, may facilitate the downgrading of other species, such as the lynx.