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Why wolves are returning to Europe, and how to deal with them

The wolf at the door

Wolves are breeding rapidly across Europe. In central Greece, Adam Nicolson finds shepherds and conservationists at odds over how to deal with their incursions

Wolves are breeding rapidly across Europe. In central Greece, Adam Nicolson finds shepherds and conservationists at odds over how to deal with their incursions

Adam Nicolson | August/September 2016

It is not often that you see wildness erupting into a man’s life, but it happened in front of me. Sotiris Stamoulis, a shepherd who keeps his 300 breeding goats in the beautiful blond wood pasture of Mount Gerania outside Corinth in central Greece, was only 18 inches away from my face but shouting his distress and rage, a gale of frustration and worry blowing out of him.

Below the trees were the distant, wind-stirred waters of the Gulf of Corinth; beyond them the mountains of the Peloponnese. Warm resin and wild oregano drifted past on the wind. Even in the daytime, nightingales were above us singing broken snatches of their song. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might have thought this another Arcadia. But for the men who live and work here, it isn’t. This is one of Europe’s wolf frontiers – the Mount Gerania pack are the southernmost wolves in Europe. Stamoulis is point-man for a way of life under existential threat and for all his strong, straddled presence, anxiety rippled through every gesture he made.

“In the beginning four years ago, I was starting to lose some animals but I didn’t know why. I’d had trouble with dogs before, usually biting the goats on the legs. But this was different: whatever it was, they were going for the throats. There was no memory of wolves here. My father, my grandfather, both had been shepherds here but none had known them. Not even 200 years ago were there any wolves here.”

The first year he lost 30 goats, the second 50. This was not the mass killing of the fairy tales. “One by one they disappeared. You never find them. They take them away.” The state compensates farmers for identifiable wolf kills, but no lacerated body to present to the officials means no money. And more than the financial loss, this disappearance of the bodies summons all the deep psycho-history of the wolf as the subtle thief, the vicious killer which will wait and pounce. “I didn’t know what the problem was. Something is happening but what is it? What is it that is attacking me? I had to stop it. I had to gather the goats together in the night. I was sleeping with them wherever they were. You are not a human any more when you are living like this. You become an animal.”

Sotiris Stamoulis, a Corinthian shepherd

Stamoulis called Panagiotis Kalliris, the official in charge of the state forests in the district of Corinth who had brought me out to meet him. Kalliris did what bureaucrats do: he wrote a report. In his office he showed me what he had written for the ministry: the screen grabs from Google Earth, the outlines of the Gerania pack’s territory, lobes of it pushing into the outskirts of Loutraki, the seaside suburb where one night earlier this year a wolf cub was found wandering among the shabby thermal spas and wellness centres. He recommended research, funding, understanding the dimensions of the problem, looking for solutions to co-existence of shepherds and wolves.

And what was the reaction from Athens? “Nothing. No reaction at all.” Kalliris is now in despair. “No one in the ministry is capable of understanding the question...They have no experience of life on the ground…If we do nothing, the shepherds will find their own solutions. They will follow methods of 50 years ago and they will try to kill the wolves. The real threat is the complete indifference of the government.”

By the mid-20th century, wolves had been eradicated from western Europe except for one or two relict populations in the Italian Apennines and in Spain. Now they are everywhere except the islands (Britain, Ireland, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, Sicily). Nobody knows quite how numerous they are, for their secrecy, their liking for hidden spots in which to make their dens, their nocturnal habits and enormous ranges, make them hard to count. The latest guess is that there are 12,000 in Europe (excluding Russia, which has some 40,000 wolves), but some estimates put the number as high as 20,000. With five, six or seven pups born every year to each alpha pair – and in some packs there are two breeding females – local populations can grow by 30% a year. Wolves are eating at least 20,000 domestic animals every year, from southern goats to northern reindeer and many thousands of dogs, but because the bodies are often difficult to find, that undoubtedly represents huge under-reporting. The real figure may be three or four times as high.

A particular set of modern circumstances have combined to create what is either, depending on your point of view, a triumph of resurgent nature or a crisis for rural Europe. Two key factors are in play. The first is the death of traditional farming, particularly in the vast upland areas of southern and south-eastern Europe. Ageing farmers, shrinking revenues (incomes in Europe’s mountain areas are 40% below those in the lowlands), the poverty of health care, the lack of educational and business opportunities, the inadequacy of grants for small farms, the pull of the city and the increasing productivity of industrialised lowland farms mean that agriculture is disappearing from the hills. Different assumptions produce different figures, but something like 75m acres of European land will have been “released from agriculture” by 2030. A giant slab of Europe will have become wolf (and bear and lynx) country.

This represents a colossal shift in our relationship to nature. For millennia, with one huge dip in the graph with the Black Death of the 14th century, mankind’s dominion over Europe’s land area has been growing. That expansion has gone into reverse, despite the enormous political and financial efforts of the common agricultural policy. Almost €13 billion were paid out over seven years through the EU’s last Rural Development Plan to keep farmers in what it calls Less Favoured Areas. Even so, almost a fifth of Europe’s mountain population has left for the cities since 1960 and human beings will continue to drain away from what are now becoming Europe’s wild areas.

The second factor to help the wolves is the environmental politics of Europe in the last half-century. First in the Bern Convention, drawn up by the Council of Europe in 1979, and then in the EU’s own Habitats Directive, European governments, with strikingly little consultation with their electorates, signed up to enormously powerful environmental legislation to protect both designated species of plants and animals, and the areas in which they survived. The wolf featured prominently in the regulations and, except in those areas where scientists agree the population can sustain some hunting or where it can be shown to be damaging to human life, it is now illegal to kill a wolf in Europe. At the same time, the EU’s life programme, which has been running since 1992, has been spending money on a string of wolf-friendly research projects throughout the continent.

A deer carcass in Parnitha National Park

A wolf caught in a Parnitha camera trap;

A day or two after my meeting with Stamoulis, Yorgos Iliopoulos, a wolf-conservation specialist working for Callisto, a Greek environmental NGO, part-funded by the EU, took me to see a wolf kill in Parnitha National Park. This forested hill in Attica has Athens’s northern suburbs lapping at its boundaries, and is fabled country: Marathon is on its eastern flanks, the bay at Chalcis, where Agamemnon gathered the fleet for Troy, lies just to the north.

Iliopoulos, a pony-tailed, grey-eyed, gentle, clever man, has dedicated his life to wolf studies, travelling thousands of miles a year across Greece in pursuit of his research into wolves and in his efforts to protect them. Callisto receives no funding from the Greek government and Greek environmental charities have few members and next to no private money. Its money comes from environmental work for contractors or the EU – and on huge amounts of essentially unpaid labour.

 Wolf prints near Kipourio, Western Macedonia

Growing conflict between people and wolves means that killing is on the rise. Iliopoulos feels a duty to protect the thousand-odd Greek wolves: “There are 300 people involved in wolf conservation in Sweden; in Greece there are three.” Why does he do it? “Because the wolves have always been here in this country, we found them here and so we have to leave them here.”

Iliopoulos first checked his camera traps on the long forest roads that run through the oak and arbutus scrubland. On his iPad, he downloaded images from a camera in reverse order: at midday, his legs and then mine; at 10am in the morning a fox; at 9am some goats; at 8.30am a red deer poking its nose at the lens; at 8am two wolves, up the track and back again, thin and hungry, on the hunt, but huge, each in bulk about ten times the size of the fox. We were within 20km (12 miles) of the Acropolis.

Wolves move far and fast. Animals from Tuscany have ended up breeding in the Spanish Pyrenees, German wolves have been found in Denmark, Norwegian wolves in Finnish Lapland, Polish wolves within howling distance of Berlin. Greek packs can have territories of 500 square kilometres or more, travelling 60km a day, and direct man-made routes are their favoured paths. “People often think of wolves as the symbols of wilderness,” Iliopoulos says. “But they are not. All over Europe, they are at home in man-made, mixed-use landscapes. They are here but you never see them. There are perfectly good ways of farmers co-existing with the wolves. It doesn’t have to be violent. Properly trained sheepdogs, good fences, not allowing the animals to graze on their own – all of that, which is deeply traditional, can protect livestock.”

They leave their signs: scat – wolf droppings – punctuated the track every mile or so, big defecated whorls, full of goat and boar hair; and, just visible in the stony ground, tracks, each pad 10 or 12 centrimetres across, the female slightly smaller than the male, making steady, purposeful progress across country. It is a way to tell the difference between a wolf and a dog: dogs wander from side to side, in their charming, distracted curiosity; wolves stick to the plan.

Haris Anagnostakis with his sheep dogs near Karpenisi, Evrytania – a number of his sheep and dogs have been killed by wolves

It was a hot afternoon. The crickets chirred in the dense undergrowth as we pushed through it to the GPS fix Iliopoulos had been given. Deer slots marked the dust of the path, not very different from any other wood, except that this one was alive with wolves, everywhere but nowhere, as pervasive and ungraspable as a fog, hidden and unsettling. “I have looked up sometimes”, Iliopoulos told me, “and seen them crouching there, just there, their eyes on me.”

After an hour, making our way up the dry limestone bed of a stream, we came on the kill. Half the spine lay in the bed of the stream, the vertebrae picked clean and the ribs nibbled to the bone. The head itself had been stripped of flesh but dried blood still clung to the deer’s teeth where they were fixed in its jaw. Flies buzzed in and out of the hollows of the skull. There was a rim of flesh and hair around the roots of the stag’s enormous antlers – about 12 centimetres across at the base – but the antlers themselves had been chewed straight through, leaving stubs like the hacked stems of sapling oaks. A few metres away up the stream were the hindquarters and the rest of the back, and the pile of rotting grass that had been in the deer’s stomach, but the stomach itself and all the other innards gone. Blood had soaked into the bed of the stream, still red and wet under any stones I picked up. It had been a messy kill. Iliopoulos found wolf hairs stuck in the blood around the deer’s teeth and in its blinded eye. The kill was about a week old, he thought, a big stag, two and a half metres from head to tail, and now little but bone.

We slept out in wolf country one night, and Iliopoulos howled for me, waiting to summon the distant return of his call before he howled again. To watch him was to see a man crying out with a kind of longing for a better world than the one in which he found himself. In a mirror image of the shepherds and the hunters all over Europe, he too feels he is defending something whose future may well be fragile and difficult. The two groups, conservationists and those who must live with the resurgence of large carnivores, sit opposite each other in a state of mutual siege.

Lake Kremasta, Evrytania

Wolf advocates among the urbanised middle classes repeatedly insist on the charm, innocence and fearfulness of wolves. Research in Sweden has shown that the less anyone knows about a wolf the more positive they feel towards it. Familiarity breeds distrust and hostility, particularly among rural populations. Among those who live at a safe distance, a kind of fantasy has gathered around the wolf as the harmless spirit of wildness. Markus Bathen, head of the Welcome Wolf! project run by NABU (Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union) has maintained recently that “the Italians, Spanish or Romanians never ask, ‘Is a wolf dangerous?’ because they have always lived with them…It is amazing that [the wolf] is decried as a man eater, this animal that quietly comes along and says: ‘The habitat is OK, the environment is OK, the only thing you need to do is to accept me.’ The myth that wolves attack people stubbornly persists. This fear is fed by fairy tales and stories, yet lacks any scientific basis.”

None of that, unfortunately, is true. John Linnell, a carnivore biologist based at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, has led a multi-authored report for the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment which analysed a wide range of verifiable accounts of wolf attacks on people in Eurasia and North America. Between 1700 and 1900, more than 1,100 French people were killed by wolves, about 400 of them the victims of wolves with rabies, which in the “furious” phase of the disease turns them into terrifying animals, travelling up to 50 miles a day and attacking anything they come across. In Italy between 1801 and 1825, 112 people were attacked by wolves; 77 of them, mostly shepherd children, died. Children were eaten by wolves in Sweden in the 1820s, in Poland in the 1930s, in Spain in the 1950s and 1970s. In the Indian province of Bihar, 200 children were killed by wolves between 1980 and 1995. In 1996 alone, 76 children were attacked by wolves in Uttar Pradesh and 50 died. If you ask shepherding families in the Greek mountains today, all are perfectly clear: they would never leave children alone in the woods.

In the old days, people felt justified in killing creatures that threatened their families. In the new world of environmental regulation, that’s illegal. Yet at the margins of Europe, where economic hardship gnaws at people’s livelihoods, wolves and farmers must live side-by-side.

The borderland of Aetolia-Acarnania and Evrytania, in the core of mountainous Greece, is prime wolf country, with long-vistaed views across the steep wooded valleys, full of hiding places and opportunities. The region is famous for the wildness of its men, a place of brigands in the 19th century and resistance fighters in the 20th. Cars and pickups tend not to have numberplates; rules seem to be largely for laughing at.

In the 21st century, it is in decline. Villages are deserted, the people are ageing. There is coexistence between men and wolves, but not of a stable, peaceful sort. The wolves are growing more confident, no longer ready to run at the sight of a man as they were in the old days; the people are taking them on with increasing violence. Wolves have been found there with their ears cut off and their bodies skinned alive, as an act of revenge.

Vasilis Taliouris scares the neighbours

Up in Chalkiopoulo, a gathering of a few houses and a taverna on the road that winds east over the mountains, I asked the men in the bar about wolves. “We have had 70 sheep killed here in this part, these 15 kilometres of road in the last year. Ten in one night.” “You kill but you don’t talk,” Vasilis Taliouras, the local taxi driver said, perfectly happy to give me his name and have his photograph taken. “There are two wolves living over there at the moment,” he pointed to the green turfy hillside to the east of us. “So I will tell you something illegal. We always say, ‘they used to do it in the old days’, but between ourselves we do it now too.” A triumphant look around the table. “When someone realises in the morning that one of his animals has been eaten by a wolf, he tells the others...We get 40 or 50 people together, not professional hunters, 40 brave men. We know the mountain, we know where he is likely to go. If he attacked on one side he usually goes to hide on the other side.”

This communal wolf hunt is entirely illegal – in contravention of the Habitats Directive – but Taliouras’s bright round face is nothing but smiles as he puts his hands on the table to model the mountain with his arched fingers. “We need a leader always. He puts people at the escape points with guns and he sends the others, five, eight, ten to the other side. They start the drive, shouting, shooting, to push the wolf over the mountain and on to the guns. Sometimes it works. And we kill him, or he runs away. Or he makes a U-turn back to his nest and we have to wait another time. That is what happened the other day.”

I asked Taliouras if it was fun. He went to his taxi parked in the road outside the taverna, reached inside and brought out a large white loudspeaker, from which, with the flick of a switch inside the taxi, the sound of a howling pack of wolves soon echoed up and down the road and through the surrounding mountains. A flock of sheep wandering down the road towards us stopped and stared intently at the source of the howling. Taliouras’s friends grinned and shouted from the taverna. He had downloaded it from an American wolf site and had been playing it at night recently to tease the shepherds. One of them had immediately called him on his mobile. “Vasili, Vasili, there are wolves howling on your side of the mountain! I can hear them now!” But the joke had turned sour and the men of the village were now after him. The night after he had played the howling on his loudspeaker, the wolves had indeed come to the very spot and killed three of his neighbour’s sheep. “No,” Tali­ouris said, “I am not a popular man at the moment.”

Yannis Koutidis with his flock

Just as the wolf is a metaphor for the spirit of the wild to some, to others wolves are the envoys of malevolent political forces. Nikos, a hunter in Karpenissi, the capital of Evrytania, told me in all confidence that their coming was the result of the war in Kosovo in the early 1990s. “The wolves in Kosovo didn’t like all the explosions or the shooting. That is when they decided to move south and we are suffering the consequences.” He would kill any he saw, he said: they were refugee wolves, immigrant wolves, Albanians. Either that or the eco-greens had been releasing them in the mountains. Vans had been seen with cages on the back. At Stavili, in Evrytania four years ago, a wolf pack attacked an inexperienced Pakistani shepherd – the whole of Greek shepherding now relies on cheap, illegal immigrant labour – and dragged him along the ground before he escaped. It was said to have been “a pack of 16 wolves”, and you could only get a pack of 16 if the numbers were being artificially raised.

Worse than that, Nikos had heard that the eco-organisations had been feeding wolves with dog flesh. For him, that explains a new form of conflict: wolves are now preying on and eating the dogs employed to hunt wild boar and hares. With the decline of farming, the wild-boar population has soared in Greece and elsewhere, and with it the number of hunters and hunting dogs. Wolves have gone beyond simply killing the dogs they come across. A generation of wolves has grown up that now view dogs as their favoured prey. “Dogs are the mezzes for wolves now, just as the cats are for the foxes,” Nikos said. “They have killed three of my dogs, which were worth €15,000 together, and each time it is like a member of my family that is killed…When I saw my dog dead, for the first time in my life, I lost my senses, I collapsed on the ground. I just found the head – they took the rest.”

Dimitri Iakos holds a barbed collar designed to protect his dogs

Tranquillity at Delphi

Illegal killing of wolves, both with guns and, more perniciously, with poisoned carcasses which also kill dogs and the increasingly rare Greek vultures, is rampant in Greece and almost entirely uncontrolled. Decent people are trying to find ways in which people and wolves can co-exist more peacefully. Europe is full of technological fixes: electric fences, well buried in the ground, as wolves always prefer to go under than over anything; toothproof Kevlar jackets for hunting dogs; even electrified jackets for dogs to give a shock to attacking wolves. In Finland, at least one wolf in each pack wears a GPS collar and the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute maintains a phone service from which callers can learn “the spatial risk” based on the last positions of GPS-collared wolves. Any family living more than 5km from the nearest school can have a state-funded taxi to ferry their children there.

But such interventions demand more money and attention than most countries are prepared to spend on such a marginal issue. National governments are torn between the demands of peasant farmers on the one hand, and those of urban environmentalists and the EU on the other. In defiance of EU regulations, the French government has deployed wolf hunters in the Alps to shoot about 10% of French wolves, but the farmers are demanding bigger culls. Last year they kidnapped local national-park officials to protest against wolf penetration. Wolf hunts were authorised in Sweden in 2010. The population is down to 340. The government says that is sustainable, but the EU and environmentalists say it is unacceptable because the wolves are so inbred, and the commission is threatening to take Sweden to court. The Germans reckon that there might be some 440 packs in Germany in the near future and if numbers continue to rise, there will be pressure to resume hunting there too.

Sheepdog claws embedded in wolf scat

Sheepdogs in Western Macedonia find strength in numbers

All over Europe, marginal farmers are under pressure. It is mostly the implacable forces of economic and social change that are crushing them but, as John Linnell, the Norway-based ecologist says, “the wolf gets the blame for a far wider set of troubles…The newly arriving wolf seems to symbolise the end of a culture and a rural economy which has been held incredibly dear for generations.”

It is easy to sympathise with the victims. Dimitri Iakos is a 55-year-old shepherd from near Grevena in northern Greece. His forehead creased, his eyes narrowed against the light, he lives in circumstances that are close to desperate. He has two Albanian men to help him around his ramshackle buildings made out of tin sheets and old pallets. “I understand people like wild animals and they like to hear the wolves howling. But what I would say to them is, ‘Guys, I am with you. But could you please try keeping your own flock and look after that for a while and live with the wolves, then come and discuss the question with me?’ When I am there on the mountain at night, he will attack, he will take from me. And I feel I matter less to the bureaucrats than the wolf does. They just don’t care about me. Until 1993 [ie, before the Habitats Directive was adopted by the Greeks], we were able to kill the wolves. And I feel that it is me who is in danger of extinction now.”

This issue lies right at the crossroads of modern priorities for culture and nature, so our ability to accept the wolf as part of the European landscape will be a measure of our larger commitment to balance the needs of humanity with those of other species. Living with wolves probably means doing more to protect farmers – more dogs, more electric fences – and allowing more killing. On that basis, co-existence should be possible.

I asked Sotiris Stamoulis, the shepherd on Mount Gerania outside Corinth what he thought. “If a wolf is doing damage here, killing the goats, I will kill it. I would not shoot it if it was not attacking my goats.” Why not? A long pause. “A sense of justice,” he said. It was an interesting answer: not vengeance, not destruction, not even dominance, but a consideration for the rights and needs of all parties.

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chiararites - July 25th 2016

There are some interesting points in this article, though I believe it is not really helpful to create a dichotomy of wolves vs shepherd's way of life, nor is useful to use environmental EU legislation as a blanket justification. This isn't really about wolves, this is about bad policy that does not prioritise the need of rural areas in order to ensure a way of life that is sustainable, wolves or no wolves. If it was sustainable, there would be means to implement other practices to safeguard flocks, while a diversified income could also mitigate losses dependent on other factors such as weather and markets. It may also keep more people interested in such type of jobs, thus reducing a move to the cities. An increase in wildlife, may also increase availability of prey for wolves, other than livestock . I am not saying I have the answer, but more questions need to be asked to avoid a simplistic understanding of the issue.