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What to know about the growing wolf population debate in Germany

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What to know about the growing wolf population debate in Germany
Wolf numbers are increasing in Germany, and with it the chance of danger. Photo: DPA
09:33 CEST+02:00
After over a century and a half of extinction, wolves are back in Germany and multiplying quickly. But who exactly is affected by this growth and does it pose a threat to humans?

Creepy werewolves in the moonlight, Little Red Riding Hood and the big, bad wolf - it is easy to see that wolves have a bad image in popular culture. Conservationists, on the other hand, were delighted when the first wolves returned to Germany in the early 2000s. However, as the animals multiply, conflicts between humans and wolves are also increasing.

So how does Germany face the rising conflict of these potentially dangerous predators? On Wednesday, the Environment Committee met in the Bundestag (German parliament) to discuss the rise in wolf packs across the German states.

Gridlock in party discussions has made clear that the topic of man vs. beast has more facets than you might think. Here are some of the answers to the biggest questions facing Germany as it assesses the threat of its rising wolf population.

Why are we talking about wolves?

For about 150 years the wolf was considered virtually extinct in Germany. Now they are back in several federal states, especially Lower Saxony and East Germany.

Estimates made by the Federal Documentation and Advice Centre on the Wolf (DBBW) state that in 2017 there were roughly 800 wolves in Germany, of which 150 to 160 were adult animals. These 800 beasts comprised of roughly 60 packs, 15 pairs and 3 lone wolves, as the Statista infographic below shows.

These numbers were a significant increase from the year before, and show that wolves now inhabit at least seven German states.

The threat posed by wolves is also rising - If these animals are able to find sufficient food and are not hunted, driven out or killed, then they are expected to multiply rapidly, said the DBBW.

Overall wolf population has greatly increased from last year. Photo: DBBW

Why is that so problematic?

Wolves are by their nature hunters - not only of wild game, but also sheep and other farm animals. Furthermore, the wolf has no natural predators.

In 2016 more than 1,000 farm animals were killed or injured by wolves. Above all sheep and goats were killed, but also some cattle fell prey.

Pasture animal husbandry is important for nature conservation in Germany. For shepherds, they say it is not only financially, but also emotionally stressful when their animals are killed.

Every attack is "a trauma for humans and animals, even the fear of it is unbearable," says Andreas Schenk of the Federal Association of Professional Shepherds.

In Lower Saxony, for example, sheep are also used to protect dikes, and wolves have struck sheep in their herds near the water.

Added to the fear over livestock losses, people in these affected areas are also voicing concerns for the safety of people, especially children and those living in rural areas.

Are wolves dangerous for humans?

According to the DBBW, most of the time wolves are not dangerous for humans.

DBBW noted that reports of attacks from earlier centuries are largely due to rabid wolves; Germany has been rabies-free since 2008.

The risk that wolves will learn to regard humans as prey is "very low", DBBW experts said. But, the DBBW report goes on to add that the instinctive caution of the animals could be "significantly reduced" if these wolves were "specifically attracted or fed".

While wolves are not usually dangerous to humans, they have the potential to wreck havoc when they feel threatened. Photo: DPA

How are wolves protected?

Wolves and their status as a protected animal is regulated in the European Union by the so-called Fauna-Flora-Habitat Directive.

The wolf belongs to the strictly protected species of Annex IV. According to this provision, the animals may not be disturbed, caught or killed within EU borders.

Annex IV does state, though, that there can be exceptions for "problem wolves” when they destroy herds or come too close to humans - in these cases, they may be deterred or "taken out" - meaning they are killed.

Wolves are also protected by other international pacts such as the Washington Convention and the Bern Convention.

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What do the shepherds want?

According to the Shepherds Association, animal herders across Germany are advocating for uniform rules for herd protection, such as regulations in place for having fences and dogs on farms, as well as financial aid for added safety measures.

"We must stop working at face value," says Schenk of the Shepherds Association, and calls for a "herd protection competence centre" at the German federal level.

But according to Schenk, shepherds feel that the precarious economic situation of their profession is a bigger problem than just the wolves.

"We have been going under for a long time", said Schenk.

Livestock, such as sheep, are particularly vulnerable to animal attack. Hunters propose federal regulations for herd protection, such as dog guardians, to help keep animals safe. Photo: DPA

What do the hunters say?

Hunters seem unable to reach a unified answer to the problem of the wolves.

The German Hunting Association (DJV) wants to include the wolf in the Federal Hunting Law - which does not necessarily mean that they could be hunted.

"Most animals in hunting law enjoy year-round closed seasons," says Helmut Dammann-Tamke of the DJV.

The hunters want to be the first point of contact and reject the idea of special "capture and removal teams" for wolves. They emphasize that wolves are multiplying rapidly, which will reduce the density of wolves in certain locations, but increase their spread across Germany.

The DJV said that high fences all over the landscape, as proposed by the Shepherds Association, might not be a real solution to the problem.

"Acceptance can only be achieved if you make it clear to the wolf that they must stay away from humans and their farm animals," says Dammann-Tamke.

The Bavarian Hunting Association, on the other hand, rejects the adoption of the wolf into hunting law, as does the Ecological Hunting Club (ÖJV) in Brandenburg.

"Our association completely understands the problem situation, but warns urgently against branding the wolf as sole reason for the economic difficulties,” explained the ÖJV in the past year.

What is the German government planning?

The Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists (CDU/CSU) wanted to call on the EU to review the protected status of the wolf "in order to bring about the necessary reduction in the population", the new coalition agreement states.

In addition, the federal and state governments want to develop a list of criteria for the "lethal removal" of wolves - a description which has been met with ridicule from some politicians. 

Germany's political parties were split on Wednesday as to how best deal with rising wolf populations. Photo: DPA

What proposals are there now in the Bundestag?

The four opposition parties have different priorities in their proposals within the Bundestag's Wednesday discussions.

The Greens called for the reintroduction of wolves to be supported, for example, through coherent habitats and support the promotion of a grazing animal premium.

Die Linke was also in favour of the reintroduction program, which would cost €30 to €40 million according to the shepherd association, as well as a uniform right to husbandry compensation.

The Free Democrats (FDP) wanted, however, to include the wolf in the federal hunting law, slightly lower the protection status for wolves in the EU and provide more money for injured parties. The FDP also emphasized the need for "stock management" in addition to herd protection.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) went a slightly different route than the other large parties. They proposed determining whether the animals are really wolves or instead hybrids that are not protected by EU law. To this claim, biologist and wolf researcher Ilka Reinhardt pointed out in the committee that hybrids have already been detected within existing German wolf herds.

The AfD also want to reduce the conditions needed to classifying a wolf as "problematic" and also suggested instating a regional upper limit for wolves.

READ MORE: Farmers stage Grimm protest against big bad wolves in Hanover

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