One of the most successful conservation stories is the return of the wolf to many European countries. In some areas of Europe there have always been stable populations. Yet, in the majority of countries the wolf had disappeared. Because wolves sometimes prey on livestock like sheep and cattle, there has been a conflict with humans for centuries. Starting already in the middle ages, humans have therefore intensely hunted wolves in Europe with the clear goal of wiping them out once and for all. This led to their extinction in most Western European countries till the first half of the 20th century.
However, in the second half of the 20th century, the opinion on wolves has widely changed. Wolves are now protected on international, European and nation level in most EU-countries. Additional efforts and projects have successfully contributed to the return of the wolf. Especially since the 1990s, the efforts have paid off. We see that as the wolf has returned to Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and other countries.
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And this process is still well underway. The wolf populations in Germany are ever-growing and roaming wolves are settling down in Denmark, the Netherlands or Belgium. In the Alps, wolves are spreading from east to west and from remote mountains into lowlands.
Here at the European Wilderness Society, we often hear the question why the wolf is returning to so many areas at the moment. Part of the explanation are the increasing support for wolves amongst Europeans and the number of projects supporting the wolf. Another important part becomes clear, when you look at the migration patterns in the last 50 years. Even though efforts to protect the wolf have started in the 1970s, they have been especially successful since the 1990s and 2000s. In this last 30 years, wolves has mostly spread from east to west.
This pattern is easy to explain, when we keep in mind that people divided Europe by one of the most impenetrable borders in history until 1989. The iron curtain was designed to stop humans from crossing the border, but as a side effect it also hindered the migration of large animals. Borders also existed between the former Warsaw Pact states hindering migration even further. In many places the border consisted of high fences – impossible to pass for a wolf. In addition we used mines, spring guns and dogs to make the border impassable. This means for decades wolves could not migrate from Central Europe to Western Europe. In addition the Wolf was hunted in the East regularly.
Since the iron curtain has fallen, the European Green Belt Initiative has turned this former death zone into a wildlife haven, which now facilitates the migration of wolves and other large animals. The fall of the Iron Curtain also introduced the FFH directive to the former East European countries. Therefore, wolf populations recovered quickly and spread from eastern Europe, where the largest number of wolves have always survived. Remaning populations in Western Europe, e.g. in Spain, France and Italy, on the contrary, are still contained by surrounding settlements, inhibiting their dispersal.
Conditions are favorable
Of course the spreading of wolves depends on a magnitude of factors, which explains the different rates of dispersal in different areas. The fast growth of populations in Eastern Germany is surely depending on the sinking number of inhabitants. Even if regions are gaining inhabitants, urbanisation is prevalent everywhere, which opens new spaces for wildlife. In addition, populations of deer and boar are steadily increasing, offering more than enough food for the wolves.
In conclusion, a number of conditions are responsible for the return of the wolf to many areas in Europe. However, one that might explain the pattern of its return the best, we often oversee. This means, if favorable opinions about the wolf keep rising and the legal protection continues, we can expect the wolf to spread even further throughout Europe.