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By Imogen Foulkes
European grey wolf in winter forest, SwitzerlandImage source,
The idea of wolves living alongside people has become a nightmare for some alpine communities
One or perhaps two wolves, spotted at a distance, roaming the mountains from which they were driven to extinction a century ago may be a good thing – a sign of nature rebalancing itself, of diversity restored.
A whole pack, prowling through alpine villages, lurking along the paths children take to school, is something different.
When the first wolf returned to Switzerland almost 30 years ago, wandering over the border from Italy, environmental groups were delighted.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of species disappeared from the Swiss Alps: the brown bear, the lynx and the wolf. The high mountain environment, so often regarded as pure and untouched, had been ravaged by one particular predator – humans.
Now all three species are back. The bears and the wolves returned naturally, the lynx has been successfully reintroduced. But the dream of people and animals living harmoniously side by side has turned, for some alpine farming communities, into a bit of a nightmare.
No shepherds tending flocks
Just this month a sheep farmer close to the Swiss capital Bern woke to find seven of his 35 sheep dead, their throats ripped out by a wolf that had apparently jumped over the electric fence designed to protect the flock.
Unlike their predecessors in the Middle Ages who were constantly aware of the danger wolves could pose, today’s farmers rarely employ shepherds to keep an eye on their flocks. Even the traditional sheep dog, which can help keep wolves at bay, has gone out of fashion.
Thirty years on, that lone Swiss wolf has become close to 100, forming at least eight packs across the country.
Children this month have seen wolves on their path on the way to school.
They regularly prey on livestock which angers farmers. Over the summer the Swiss Farmers Union complained that “attacks on livestock have taken on a new dimension”, forcing farmers to bring their animals down from summer pastures early to protect them.
The entire alpine economy, the farmers said, was at risk.
More worrying, some wolf packs are showing an interest not just in sheep but in people.
Last winter a wolf was spotted watching as children learned to ski. In August, a farmer and her dog were followed by a wolf in canton Grisons and days later the same farmer was followed by three wolves which attacked the dog.
In the same region, hikers reported being followed by a wolf pack. And this month a group of children in Heinzenberg met wolves on the path as they walked to school.
A hundred years ago, the response to wolves getting too close to humans was swift – they were killed. Today, wolves are protected in Switzerland, and can only be culled if it can be proved they are a real danger to livestock or people.
This is a long process involving cantonal wildlife officers sending evidence to the federal office for the environment in Bern, which will if satisfied authorise the killing of single wolves on a case by case basis.
Beware the return of the Iberian wolf, say farmers
Farmers are increasingly impatient. Last year they called a referendum demanding the law be changed to make it easier to hunt and kill problematic wolves. Swiss voters, most of whom live in cities, said no.
Wolf pictured in Zeglingen area of Basel – picture courtesy of Basel LandschaftImage source, Basel Landschaft
This young wolf, pictured recently in the Basel area, is the first such urban sighting since wolves were culled a century ago
Instead, communities with wolf packs close by are trying deterrence.
Rubber bullets are being used instead of real ones to try to show wolves they are not welcome in populated areas.
Children are warned to keep their eyes open, and to report all sightings of wolves. As a last resort, to scare off a wolf that gets too close, they should shout at the top of their lungs – it worked for that farmer whose dog was attacked.
And finally, the advice is to keep calm. Just because a wolf is close by, says David Gerke, president of the group Wolf Switzerland, does not mean it is about to attack.
“The encounters in canton Grisons may seem dangerous to people,” he told Swiss media, “but what happened is unlikely to have posed any real danger.” Young wolves, he said, are naturally curious and so will sometimes get close.
But wolves are lodged deep in our collective consciousness as something we should be afraid of. Rational argument may not persuade people to accept the “big bad wolf” in their neighbourhoods.
The most recent sighting of a Swiss wolf was not high in the mountains, but in Basel. Many cities in Europe have come to accept urban foxes, but urban wolves? Maybe not.