People view wolves as either a threatening predator or a sign of a healthy natural habitat. Many proponents of nature and animal conservation welcome the spread of wolf populations in Germany. By contrast, farmers who graze herds directly impacted by the wolves’ return are more critical.
The team of Nicolas Schoof, Prof. Dr. Albert Reif of the Chair of Site Classification and Vegetation Science at the University of Freiburg, and Prof. Dr. Eckhard Jedicke of the Competence Center Cultural Landscape and the Department of Landscape Planning and Nature Conservation of Hochschule Geisenheim University has assessed the existing legal situation. On the basis of a range of environmental data they have determined the conflicts and drawn up possible solutions.
In an article in the German specialist journal “Naturschutz und Landschaftsplanung” (Nature Conservation and Landscape Planning) the researchers present in detail how wider distribution of the predator could negatively affect legally binding nature conservation goals.
Schoof explains that experts – based on the assumption that the wolves were living mainly in isolation – initially ascribed those that have reappeared in Germany to the Central European Lowlands population. Nevertheless, newer genetic studies show the population is at least interacting with the Baltic wolf population, meaning that incest risk is low. The Freiburg researcher goes on to say that European law is very strict and does not allow – other than has been often maintained – any type of regulatory culling. “As a result,” says Schoof, “there is a high growth and survival rate for young animals, allowing the wolf to spread to many regions.”
The species itself primarily indicates there has been growth in the native fauna. Schoof’s team is analyzing the consequences the growing wolf population – and with it the increasing attacks on livestock and resulting demands to protect herds in Germany – will have for maintaining biodiversity.
“There’s the threat of a partial abandonment of livestock grazing, especially in locations that are crucial to conserving nature,” explains Schoof. Areas affected could, for example, be meadows or grasslands on steep slopes as well as those with stony soils.
These habitats are – like the wolf itself – the focus of legally binding conservation measures and are dependent on the continuation of grazing. Unlike the wolf habitats, these environments are so rare that they are at risk.
In many cases, new fences can offer herds much better protection. But this isn’t possible on steep slopes, for example. Dependent on the size and condition of the pastures, sheepdogs could be introduced. But the researchers say that is a markedly labor and cost intensive option which would only come into question for a few livestock owners. But sheepdogs cannot be effectively used above all in partially open pasture lands that are an essential component for conserving biodiversity.
Yet it is precisely in these areas that the problems caused by wolves could increase, says Schoof, meaning that only fixed, wolf-resistant fences are a solution, but these would limit the spatial efficacy of large grazing projects. What is more, the expected erection of fencing systems will generally form a massive impediment to other wildlife that have found an optimal habitat on grazing land.
Based on these conflicts, the researchers say they have no doubt that the permissible legal regulatory measures to cull problematic individuals through hunting must be simplified significantly and stringently implemented. Taken in perspective, comprehensive active management of the wolf population must be considered and the necessary legal regulatory changes undertaken. The researchers argue that the wolf population is not endangered because of the individual numbers that have been reached, the generally low incest risk, and the current exponential growth in population. Schoof points out that simpler solutions are not in sight or legally possible as yet.
Additionally, the researchers propose in their study that on the one hand, all the required measures to protect herds should be comprehensively supported.
“On the other hand, better financial support for the frequently economically unattractive farming of grazing animals could contribute to moderating the existing conflicts,” says Schoof. “In that way, owners of grazing livestock would clearly be shown that they are key partners when it comes to implementing practical conservation efforts,” he adds.