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

World of Animals - - Contents - Words Scott Dut­field

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

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