The protection of wolves in the EU: where are we?

9 Feb 2024
On 8 February 2024, the Animal Welfare Intergroup gathered to discuss the widespread comeback of wolves in Europe which has been feeding very polarised debates over the last years and has led to recent proposals of changing the wolf’s protection status, opening the possibility of reducing their populations. The general increase of prey species across Europe, has enabled wolves and other carnivores to expand their range from the few places in which they were not driven to extinction.

Tilly Metz MEP, the President of the Animal Welfare Intergroup opened the meeting by emphasising that the aim of the session was to better understand the implications of the return of wolves in our landscape and how to coexist with these animals.

Dr Sabina Nowak from the faculty of biology at the University of Warsaw, spoke in her presentation about the situation of the wolf in Poland, where three of the nine transboundary wolf populations in Europe are present. Wolves have always been part of the country’s fauna and there was therefore no need to protect them for the pure reason of species conservation. They have gained high protection status also for the essential ecosystem functions and services they provide. For instance, they regulate populations of wild animals, including species like deer and wild boars  that can cause considerable damage in forestry and agriculture. Interestingly, beavers are wolves’ prey and compensations for damages caused by these species in Poland are 18,5 times higher than compensations for wolf damages. Wolves can also limit the spread of diseases such as African Swine Fever.

Dr Sabina Nowak also highlighted a recent study conducted in Slovakia which demonstrates that culling does not influence depredation levels. Efforts to downgrade the protection status are therefore inadequate to solve the issue.

Film director, Jean Michel Bertrand presented excerpts from his latest documentary, “Vivre avec les loups” (“Living with wolves”), which gives a voice to farmers, shepherds and hunters in France and Switzerlanwho coexist with wolves. The film provides compelling insights to the solutions that have been developed and implemented. Multiple actors have initiated a dialogue in search for collective intelligence that is far from the current polarised and emotional debate around wolves. The statements made reveal that the wolf is only a small part of the problems that farmers face. The key question is how to relearn to live with wolves

Jean-Michel Bertrand insisted on the fact that the culling of wolves is a simplistic response to a very complex problem. The non-targeted culling or eradication of wolves from certain areas will amplify attacks because it can disrupt packs and the transmission of experience. Whelps need to learn from their elders that it is risky to approach farmed animals. The recent EC proposal to downgrade the protection status of wolves is a foot in the door that can open a Pandora's box.

Humberto Delgado Rosa from the Directorate General for the Environment at the European Commission highlighted that the return of the wolf is a success story. On 20th December, the Commission responded to the resolution of the Parliament from 2022 proposing to downgrade the protection status of wolves under the Bern Convention because their populations are increasing in most Member States. He mentioned though that it does not mean that wolves reached a favourable conservation status everywhere. Further assessments will be needed in the coming years. He also emphasised that there is no other solution than coexistence.

Mr Delgado Rosa recalled that most Europeans cherish the presence of large carnivores, including in rural areas. Downgrading the protection status is not the solution that will solve the issue, but coexistence will. He highlighted that through the LIFE programme the European Commission continues to support research in this area.

After the presentations by the three speakers, Anja Hazekamp MEP, Honorary President of the Animal Welfare Intergroup, moderated a lively debate and then closed the session on the hopeful note that coexistence with wolves is necessary and possible.