Why does the wolf return?

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.

The turning-point

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.

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.

Why now?

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.

Reconstruction of the inner German border during the cold war (Photographer Marius Auth); Big fences and large cleared areas prevented anything from passing the border

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.

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4 thoughts on “Why does the wolf return?

  1. Hi,
    if you check the DBBW Website you are right that the first wolf should up 2001.. but the real migration started around 2004-6 and lets remember that even between GDR and Poland were border patrols just like between GDR and Czech and Romania and Hungary hindering for example the migration of the Golden Jackal. Even the iron curtain between Slovenia and Austria stopped the bears from migrating into Austria through the Karawanken. It was a mix of events triggered by the fall or the iron curtain which led to the EE countries going the EU and thus joning the FFH.

  2. Poland only became a EU member in 2004 and thus approved the Habitat Directive, by that time, the wolf was already established in Germany for some years.

  3. Hi, As explained in the article it was a combination of the FFH directive adapted by the former EE countries (which is also linked to the fall of the Iron Curtain) and the disappearing of the iron curtain between the west and east and between the former East European countries.

  4. Sorry, but this is nonsense. It’s not the iron curtain that made the difference. In the former East Germany the wolf was hunted 24/7 all year. There was no wolfs, same in most of Poland, there was only wolfs in the eastern parts of Poland. The iron curtain was removed in 1990, but the wolf only returned to Sachsen around 2001. Why ? because the government in Poland protected the wolf in all of Poland by 1998, and this is the story behind the wolf return to western Europe.

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