Return of the pack
Making their way back from the brink of eradication in Germany, wolves are returning to their roots with the help of dedicated volunteers
We find out how volunteers in germany are helping bring wolves back from the brink
Now in its second year, Biosphere Expeditions, a nonprofit conservation organisation, welcomed volunteers from around the globe in June to begin another year of monitoring the wolves of Germany, just one of its many expeditions aimed at obtaining scientific data on species of importance across the globe. This year I was fortunate enough to join the team to learn first-hand how to monitor these majestic mammals.
Having travelled to Lower Saxony, northern Germany, I joined an enthusiastic group of volunteers and set out to base camp at the Lüneburg Heath Nature Reserve. As a newly formed team of citizen scientists, we received a crash course in how to sniff out the tracks of a wolf
and identify their vast territories. over the course of the next seven days, myself and the other volunteers trekked through the vast forests and wilderness of Germany putting our new-found detective skills to the test.
As part of our training, Biosphere arranged for us to meet some of the grey wolves (Canis lupus) at the Wolf Centre in Saxony. In the centre’s wooded grounds, a pack of wolves came trotting over to greet us, before howls and playful scraps ensued. The wolves at the centre act as ambassadors for wolf-kind and help to educate the public about their true behaviour and their place not only in Germany but the world.
famous for their social nature and strong family values, wolves live in packs of between five and ten members (although much larger packs have been reported) comprising a breeding pair and their offspring. Born in a den after a two-month gestation period, wolf pups come into the world blind and deaf. They will stay inside the den for up to four weeks before beginning to venture out, with younger members of the pack helping the parents to babysit the pups.
After a period of around nine months young wolves will begin to become self-sufficient and start exploring their pack’s territory, which can span up to 2,590 square kilometres (1,000 square miles). Upon reaching maturity at two to three years of age wolves will either remain in their pack or venture out into the wilderness to form their own family group.
The largest canid to run wild today, grey wolves are highly intelligent and resourceful hunters. on average, adult wolves need around two to six kilograms (4.4 to 14 pounds) of meat per day. However, a single meal of ten kilograms (22 pounds) can sustain them for a couple of weeks when food is scarce. Thankfully for the packs that live within the forests of Germany, food scarcity is not a problem they have to contend with.
With a particular taste for roe and red deer, or even the tough meat of wild boar, wolves often prey on old, weak or young individuals. Though iconic as a fierce predator, wolves are not above a free meal should one present itself and have been known to eat carrion. However, changes in seasons and human hunting can lead to substitutions on the mammal menu for whatever is most abundant. Ironically, it was its adaptable appetite that actually led to the wolf’s historical downfall in Germany. Their aforementioned preference for the slowest members of the herd previously led them to predate livestock. Understandably fearing for their livelihoods, the farmers living in Germany’s towns and villages began a sustained national crusade against these impressive hunters. By 1850 the grey wolf had all but vanished.
“Wolves are elusive, so when investigating their territories, it is important to remember that what these majestic mammals leave behind can be just as revealing”
“When you look at the Middle Ages, wolves were around but no game because everything was hunted. families had maybe one goat or one cow, and when wolves took one animal it was dangerous for the families. This led to the fairytale that wolves are dangerous, so we didn't have any wolves anymore, but these stories stayed,” explains Biosphere conservation scientist Peter Schütte. Historically, grey wolves were once widely distributed throughout Europe, but today there are only around 12,000 residing on the continent. Even so, since a pair of Polish wolves crossed the border and settled in Upper Lusatia in the German state of Saxony in 2000 (prior to establishing Germany’s first new pack in 150 years) the signs of a comeback have been increasingly prevalent. Now protected under EU law and the State Wolf Bureau, the wolf’s return is one that is closely monitored by volunteers (such as those on a Biosphere expedition), who work diligently to gather information to support the wolf’s place in nature.
During the early summer, groups of volunteers gather at the expedition’s base in Lower Saxony. Trekking for over ten kilometres (6.2 miles) per day, volunteers search the region’s coniferous forests looking for proof that wolves have passed through.
Grey wolves are notoriously elusive, so sightings are not a regular occurrence while strolling through the forests of Lower Saxony. Therefore, when investigating their territories, it is important to remember that what these majestic mammals leave behind can be just as revealing. Lucky enough for the volunteers monitoring their movements, wolves like to ramble along the paths and dirt tracks of Germany’s many woodlands, avoiding navigating through the tall grass and shrubbery within. This behaviour creates the perfect opportunity for volunteers to follow in their footsteps.
Among dirt, mud, and in some cases snow, the paw prints of wolves can act as a visual confirmation of their presence. There can, however, be cases of misidentification when first looking at a set of tracks. As popular trails for keen dog walkers, what at first glance may appear as a perfect set of grey wolf tracks can in actuality belong to a local Labrador.
Typically, the paw prints of adult wolves are around eight centimetres (3.1 inches) long, but what helps to mark them out is the different way in which they walk compared to dogs. As energy-efficient animals, wolves trot directly, often leaving the imprints of their hind paws in the tracks of their front ones. These linear tracks are evenly spaced at least 50 centimetres (19.7 inches) apart, unlike the wavering walk of a dog.
While trekking through the woods volunteers can come across the remains of a kill only a wild predator like the wolf could have taken down. This style of kill is another way to differentiate from dogs – as calculated killers, wolves target the necks of deer, their precise claw marks the opposite of a dog’s random signature.
In many conservation projects that monitor mammal species, camera traps are common practice. However, land
“fearing for their livelihoods, farmers began a national crusade. By 1850 the grey wolf had all but vanished”
ownership regulations can prevent them from being used. “Everything in Germany belongs to someone. for example, we have commercial forests owned by the State Authority for foresters, but there are still people who rent them, and there may also be a farmer who works there. That’s three institutions that need to give permission,” explains Peter.
“Camera traps are a nice tool and helpful when you have a new territory, but the most important information we can obtain is their DNA, but it would be good for the public to see them.”
one of the best ways to monitor wolves lies in their faeces. Technically called ‘scat’, the faecal remains of wolves not only give confirmation of their presence but also reveal information about their diet and health. However, while tracks and animal remains can identify the presence of a wolf, it cannot single them out.
DNA collected from scat can act as a genetic nametag, enabling scientists to track an individual’s movements. “In the spring of last year a female was confirmed. With our work more DNA could be identified, and in autumn they found out it’s a whole pack,” explains Peter.
The information gathered from monitoring expeditions such as those run by Biosphere is used in more ways than just for scientific research. Integral to their conservation and protection is the need to better inform public and political opinion about the place of wolves in Germany. In understanding the population distortion of wolves and their prey species, authorities can support people who are apprehensive about their presence, such as farmers and game hunters.
Thanks to modern technology (as well as some more old-fashioned methods) there are many ways farmers are able to protect their animals from wolves. Under a ‘wolf directive’ established by the Lower Saxony Ministry of Environment in 2014, financial support is being offered for prevention measures such as wolf-repellent fences and herd companion dogs.
“The German NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union) did a survey about the wolf and its acceptance – 79 per cent said it was positive that the wolf is here. The people live among them, and those who will not accept wolves are low [in number], but they are loud, especially in Saxony, where wolves came in first and
“one of the best ways to monitor wolves lies in their scat, which can reveal information about their diet and health”
have been for nearly 20 years. Even so, one can see that people adapt when livestock is protected, and the public is informed with fact,” concludes Peter.
Thanks to the efforts of volunteers, there are currently 35 packs in Germany, in which 129 pups have been confirmed, along with ten pairs and three lone wolves. Though there are more hurdles to clear before the goal of national acceptance of the wolf in Germany is achieved, citizen science expeditions such as Biosphere’s are laying the scientific foundations on which to build a better understanding between man and beast.
At the end of our time with Biosphere Expeditions, my fellow citizen scientists and I had become genuinely immersed in the world of the wolf. We had learned how to recognise evidence of their presence, gained an understanding of their typical behaviours and developed an appreciation of the persecution they’ve faced in the past and the challenges that they are now forced to confront today.
Starting out as a group of keen conservation enthusiasts eager to do our bit, we left Germany with a deeper understanding of the role of wolves and their place in the wild. While we didn’t hear the howls of wild wolves for ourselves, the knowledge we gained from studying their lives made it feel as though we had.
Wolves can cover a distance of around 30km (18.6mi) per day Volunteers ramble through the dense coniferous forests searching for evidence of wolvesABOVE Wolf prints are often found along public pathsand tracks
Thanks to the help of some canine guidance, volunteers are able to locate valuable samples
Wolf faeces is commonly reduced to nothingbut the hair and bones of their prey
Farmers use companion dogs to ward off wolves in a bid to defend their livestock