The farming lobby vs Europe’s wolves

The farming lobby vs Europe's wolves |

No one would deny that wolves periodically kill farm animals — but the political attention that these large carnivores receive is disproportionate to the damage they cause (Photo: Darren Welsh)

Over the past few years, farming and hunting organisations have waged an unrelenting vendetta against the wolf, which culminated in the European Commission’s 180-degree policy U-turn. In late 2023, the commission delivered a controversial proposal — with no discernible scientific basis — to lower the protection status of the wolf under the Bern Convention.

This proposed change is a necessary precursor for these special interest lobbyists to attain their true holy grail: the amendment of the EU Habitats Directive.

While no-one would categorically deny that wolves periodically kill farm animals, nor dispute the point that this causes both emotional distress and financial losses for farmers, the political attention that these large carnivores receive is disproportionate to the damage they cause.

For example, if one considers that there are around 60 million sheep in the EU, only 0.065 percent of this population actually fall victim to depredation by wolves. State aid provisions have long allowed full remuneration of damages and the costs of implementing preventative measures to protect stock, although member states are not always efficient in disbursing these funds.

Moreover, we have witnessed great strides taken at both the local and regional levels in EU-funded programmes to achieve coexistence between large carnivores and rural communities. Changing the protection status of wolves would greatly undermine such efforts since it would erroneously imply that killing these animals is a better way of dealing with depredation than embracing and investing in the implementation of appropriate mitigation measures.

Indeed, there is strong evidence that wolf attacks on farm animals tend to occur when either no or inadequate preventative efforts have been taken.

With a long history of being culturally reviled, wolves are easy prey to be used as scapegoats for the broader ills affecting contemporary animal agriculture. Stigmatising and going after wolves as a common enemy deflects from the bigger problems faced by small and medium-sized farmers, particularly in the sheep sector, who must bear the brunt of incidental wolf attacks.

Let’s face it, sheep farming is already in crisis.

The sector is beset by low incomes, limited investment, geographical remoteness, labour shortages and a lack of attractiveness to younger farmers. Farmers must also contend with cheap exports from outside the EU, changing consumer preferences and dietary habits, infectious animal diseases (such as bluetongue), and changes in public funding policy. Fluctuating market prices and the imposition of low prices on farmers by retailers and food companies, as well as increasing production costs, do not help matters.

Being able to shoot more wolves is not going to make these problems go away.

While the wolf has indeed enjoyed a resurgence and expansion of its range in Europe thanks to concerted conservation efforts, this does not necessarily mean that open season can or should be declared upon the species.

According to the latest assessment of its populations based on reports by member states in 2019, the wolf was still in an unfavourable-inadequate conservation status in six out of seven EU biogeographical regions.

Healthy part of the ecosystem

It is also important to recognise and appreciate that wolves can play a fundamental role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Research suggests that they significantly contribute to the functioning and stability of the overall landscape by not only reducing the numbers and population density of prey animals, but also altering their behaviour.

This is something that has been observed in the Netherlands where wolves have re-established themselves after an absence of nearly two centuries. The return of wolves has created a ‘landscape of fear’ in which prey species, such as deer, have begun actively avoiding places where they are exposed to danger.

With grazing pressure from prey animals reduced and less of their excreta being deposited, soil composition has already started changing and vegetation is regenerating, which in turn creates greater plant species diversity and habitats for other mammals, birds, insects and fish.

In sum, wolves are great for biodiversity, but it turns out that they could also be good for animal health and, therefore, farmers too.

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There is increasing evidence that the presence of a healthy wolf population could also help tackle the scourge of African swine fever, an infectious animal disease that has blighted the European pig industry over the past decade.

The ASF virus affects domestic pigs and wild boar alike, leading to great suffering and high mortality, as well as significant socio-economic disruption. It is spread not only through direct contact with infected animals, but also indirectly through contact with contaminated vehicles, equipment or clothing, or products consumed from infected animals.

Wild boar form a constitutive part of wolves’ diet, yet there is no evidence that wolves can spread African swine fever. To the contrary, research suggests that these large carnivores could play a valuable role in eliminating the disease. Examining the faeces of wolves who have feasted on the remains of ASF-positive boar, scientists have found that the virus does not survive the passage through their intestinal tracts.

Wolves, therefore, could be viewed as an ecosystem service provider since they get rid of infected carcasses thereby limiting the spread of the virus.

Ironically, the very same politicians who seek to lower protections for wolves also bemoan the fact that there is a proliferation of wild boar and too few hunters to control their populations. They are failing to join the dots here: having a healthy wolf population around is actually a good thing to keep wild boar numbers down and get rid of infected carrion.

In the end, there is no evidence that lowering the protection status of wolves would actually benefit the animal agriculture sector. Indeed, it could end up doing more harm than good.

For this and other reasons, EU environment ministers considering the commission’s proposal on the wolf’s fate under the Bern Convention should remember that their decision-making ought to be based on science, rather than on the placating of lobbies that are constantly baying for lupine blood.


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