Wolves hunted by political pack in Europe

Europe Letter: Europeans are not prepared to make the environmental sacrifices they ask of poorer countries

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? The European People’s Party, apparently.

Fine Gael’s political group successfully pushed a resolution through the European Parliament last week to demand the weakening of the protection of wildlife including grey wolves, lynxes, and brown bears, due to farmers’ concerns about predation on livestock.

A non-binding resolution, the vote was aimed to apply pressure to the European Commission to alter habitat policies to allow large predators to be more easily killed.

It’s not an issue for Ireland, where the last native wolf was killed in the 1700s, and ideas about reintroduction have been greeted with hostility.


But it is for continental Europe. Decades after wolves were hunted to extinction in many parts of the Continent, strict protections forbidding their killing have helped to reverse their dwindling numbers, bucking the trend of a 70 per cent collapse in global wildlife populations in the last 50 years.

The resolution, which was also backed by Fianna Fáil while being opposed by Ireland’s Green and Left-independent MEPs, suggested that the population of wolves in Europe had increased from 12,000 in 2012 to to 19,000 today.

The increasing range of wolf packs had brought them “into conflict with human activities”, the resolution read, noting “costs to pastoralists caused by depredation of their herds”.

In one particularly vivid illustration this year, a wolf was blamed for the untimely demise of Dolly, the beloved pony of the European Commission President and EPP darling Ursula von der Leyen.

German tabloid Bild reported the carcass had been discovered by her husband Heiko in a field near their house in bucolic Lower Saxony, as another frightened pony who had been spared stood by. “The whole family is terribly upset,” she told the newspaper.

The EPP celebrated the passing of the resolution by distributing promotional cartoons showing a salivating wolf, bear, and lynx advancing on a frightened sheep and shepherdess.

But this is far from the picture painted by a study of the effect of wolves in an agricultural area of Denmark and Germany in a paper that was published this year.

It focused on the area of Jutland, where 17 wolves were recorded in 2021, a decade since their presence was first noticed in 2007.

Attacks on sheep were given the full CSI treatment, down to identifying the individual wolf responsible if possible by genetically testing the saliva left on the bite mark.

The results of the study found that wolves try to live in forested areas where there are few humans, and contrary to popular belief, are not drawn towards large sheep populations. Rather, they turn to livestock in the absence of wildlife.

“We found that wolves mainly eat sheep because they happen to be moving through areas with lots of farm animals and little natural prey,” the authors wrote in a summary of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

“Killing such wolves only solves the problem temporarily, usually until the next wolf arrives. For a long-term solution, sheep must be better protected from attack in areas where wolves occur.”

They recommended making fences higher and adding electric wires, measures which were found to reduce attacks by 96 per cent in a project in the Italian Alps.

The EPP’s resolution dismissed such solutions as meaning “additional financial and labour burdens for farmers”, and warned their effectiveness could vary.

At the recent Cop27 United Nations Climate Change Conference, developing countries repeated their argument that they are asked to make sacrifices for the sake of the environment that richer countries are not prepared to make themselves.

The EPP has previously called on Brazil to protect the Amazon rainforest, and for tighter rules on products such as soy, palm oil, coffee and chocolate to stop the destruction of forests and wildlife in South America and Asia. Its position paper on Africa similarly calls for the “protection of systemic forests and biodiversity”.

A figure cited by the European Commission in its response to the resolution illustrates how low the tolerance is in Europe for any cost associated with accommodating nature, despite the compromises the EU expects parts of the world with more wilderness to make.

The number of sheep killed in Europe by wolves each year is estimated to be 20,000, Commissioner Janez Lenarčič told the chamber.

“This is a big figure which can be drastically reduced with proper protection measures,” he continued. “But this figure, 20,000, represents 0.06 per cent of the sheep numbers in the concerned countries.”

He repeated it for effect: “0.06 per cent.”