Dutch scientists this week announced that a mysterious creature found dead at the roadside is almost certainly the country’s first wolf in 150 years. Tony Paterson on the killer that’s making a comeback across Europe

Rietschen, Germany

Friday 12 July 2013

For sheep farmer Frank Neumann, the grisly spectacle was not merely shocking: it was like a surreal re-enactment of a scene from Jack London’s White Fang, the  famous early 20th-century novel about predatory Alaskan wolves during the Klondike gold rush. One overcast April morning, the 63-year-old shepherd went out, as usual, to tend to his flock, which he had carefully fenced in the night before in a field in the remote east German village of Schleife. He was devastated by the bloodbath that confronted him.

The mauled and blood-soaked corpses of 27 of his carefully nurtured livestock were scattered across his sheep enclosure. A few displayed gaping, bright-red flesh wounds, but most of the dead animals had had their skins punctured by deadly incisors, which had caused them to perish from massive subcutaneous haemorrhaging.

The next night the predators struck again, killing six more of Mr Neumann’s flock. “After this bloodbath, I was ready to chuck in sheep farming for good,” he told The Independent. Mr Neumann has been a shepherd all his life, but never expected to have his livelihood threatened by wolves.

Germany’s “last wolf” was shot dead in 1904. The few that strayed into German territory from eastern Europe after the Second World War met a similar fate. Mr Neumann’s flock was attacked in a remote corner of north-east Saxony in 2002. But now the predator has returned with a vengeance, not only to vast tracts of Germany but also to much of western Europe. Just last week an animal, which biologists believe was almost certainly a wolf, was run over and killed by a car near the Dutch hamlet of Luttelgeest, a mere 30 miles from densely populated Holland’s North Sea coast. Naturalists say the animal probably came from a German pack and was likely to have been hunting for a suitable location to start a new one. Biologists are still carrying out tests. If their claims are confirmed, the animal will be first wolf found in the Netherlands since 1869.

The wolf’s return to western Europe can attributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. After Germany’s subsequent reunification in 1990, the wolf became a protected species across the entire country. It was a radical policy switch which holds out the near-certain and for many still alarming prospect of the wolf’s return to parts of the European Union which have lived without the predator for well over a century. Luttelgeest’s wolf is evidence enough. Holland’s natural heritage organisation, Natuurmonument, says it may not be long before the animals are again roaming the Dutch countryside.

“Most European countries have signed the 1979 Berne convention which prohibits the killing of wolves,” said Vanessa Ludwig, a biologist who monitors the growing wolf population in Germany’s Lausitz region, close to the border with Poland . In her office in the so-called “wolf village” of Rietschen, the walls are covered with maps marked out with blue circles  denoting the areas where wolf packs have settled only recently. “In Europe, the wolf is at the top of the predatory chain. It has no enemies except humans. We have not reached the legal limit in wolf numbers which would allow for culling, so the species is, by its nature, destined to spread across the continent,” she explained.

Wolves started entering Lausitz from Poland in the 1990s. The detritus of the Cold War has turned the area into ideal wolf country. It is covered with military exercise areas once used to train the occupying Soviet Army. Nowadays, they are used much less frequently by German troops.

For most of the time they make up a vast, uninhabited and largely road and path-less wilderness, covered with half-grown pine and birch trees. The public is warned not to enter. Europe has nine wolf population zones including Scandinavia, the Baltic states. Poland, Romania, south-eastern France, Italy and the Iberian peninsula. In Lausitz, a dramatic and significant shift in the wolves’ behaviour was observed in 2000, forcing a rethink about the animals’ future. A night-vision video camera filmed a pair with a cub as they meandered across one of the deserted military areas. It proved that wolves were not just visiting Germany, but had resettled the country for the first time in more than a century. Today, there are an estimated 40 wolves in the region and their numbers are growing.

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