Na­ture di­aries: The big bad wolf and I

Should we re­ally fear them?

World of Animals - - What's Inside - Words Scott Dut­field

Once upon a time, in the heart of Ger­many’s forests, there lived the grey wolf. A fe­ro­cious beast, with glis­ten­ing teeth and an in­sa­tiable blood­lust, it lurked in the shad­ows, poised and ready to pounce on any un­sus­pect­ing per­son. Or at least that’s what the fairy tales would have you be­lieve. As a re­sult, wolves have gained a rep­u­ta­tion that they do not de­serve, one that means they are feared by those liv­ing around them.

Nat­u­rally, as with any large preda­tor, wolves are per­ceived as deadly killers. Though true when deal­ing with their wild prey, it’s their pre­vi­ous mis­giv­ings with live­stock that landed them the death penalty in Ger­many dur­ing the 1800s at the hand of farm­ers. Branded as a threat to their liveli­hoods, the farm­ing com­mu­nity al­most erad­i­cated the wolf, si­mul­ta­ne­ously ce­ment­ing it as a ruth­less vil­lain.

Now, as the species makes a steady re­turn to the woods of Ger­many, there are still those that fear that wolves re­main a threat. So much so that only in July of 2018 a young fe­male wolf was il­le­gally shot in Sax­ony, de­spite the fact that wolves are pro­tected by both EU and Ger­man law.

Trav­el­ling to Lower Sax­ony, Ger­many,

I set out to join a team on a rel­a­tively new con­ser­va­tion project with Bio­sphere Ex­pe­di­tion, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that works to col­lect in­for­ma­tion about these wild na­tives and one that could help me to sort the facts from the fairy tales.

I must ad­mit, the thought of trav­el­ling to a cabin in the dense woods of Ger­many to mon­i­tor wolves did stir up feel­ings of ap­pre­hen­sion. What if I came face to face with a snarling wolf within the shad­ows of the for­est? I quickly pushed this un­help­ful thought to one side and pre­pared to join the other vol­un­teers on a trek into the lair of the wolf.

Walk­ing through the conif­er­ous forests of Ger­many, it is easy to get dis­tracted by the sheer majesty of trees. So dense are some ar­eas that the Sun strug­gles to force through to the ground. As the week went on the ev­i­dence of wolves be­gan to pile up.

“Trav­el­ling to a cabin in the woods to mon­i­tor wolves did stir up feel­ings of ap­pre­hen­sion”

“To learn about the threat the wolves posed and the fear that fu­elled their per­se­cu­tion, we went to meet a man about a dog”

Track marks, scat and the re­mains of their kills con­firmed sev­eral packs were roam­ing across Sax­ony. To learn about the threat they posed and the fear that fu­elled their his­tor­i­cal per­se­cu­tion, the team and I went to meet a man about a dog.

Down a coun­try path off a busy car­riage­way, we ar­rived at a field where a flock of sheep were graz­ing. There I met a farmer named Hol­ger Benning. Pro­tected by an elec­tric fence, at first noth­ing ap­peared unique about the live­stock pen. Then we got a lit­tle closer. As I ap­proached I was met but the star­tling sound of sev­eral large Kan­gal dogs bark­ing and one puppy mim­ick­ing his el­ders. The role of these dogs is to act as per­sonal body­guards for the sheep, ward­ing off any ad­vanc­ing lupines. They clearly meant a lot to Hol­ger.

While a wolf would in­deed have to be des­per­ate to con­tem­plate tak­ing on these hulk­ing hounds, their pro­tec­tive be­hav­iour came to an end the mo­ment I en­tered the pen, the Kan­gals quickly re­vert­ing to the tail wag­ging and kisses you would ex­pect from do­mes­ti­cated dogs.

An­other anti-wolf tech­nique of­ten de­ployed in Ger­many are elec­tric fences, but whether it be dogs or bar­ri­cades, I couldn’t help won­der where this idea that wolves of­fer a uniquely sav­age threat first came from. Why were they once revered only to be­come de­spised?

Wolves have played a ma­jor role in hu­man myth and folk­lore since our very be­gin­nings. The an­cient Greeks as­so­ci­ated wolves with the Sun god Apollo, and in Ro­man leg­end, Ro­mu­lus and Re­mus, sons of Mars (the god of war) and founders of the city of Rome, were suck­led by a fe­male wolf as babes. Yet per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing tale sur­round­ing wolves can be found in Norse folk­lore, which fea­tures a trio of cruel wolves.

The first is Fen­rir, a ti­tanic beast born of the gods An­gr­boda and Loki and a fig­ure who struck fear into the hearts of the Nordic gods. Fen­rir him­self fa­thered two equally ter­ri­fy­ing wolves: Skoll and Hati. While the for­mer was be­lieved to for­ever pur­sue the char­iot that pulled the Sun, the lat­ter ded­i­cated his ex­is­tence to chas­ing the Moon. Ac­cord­ing to the tale of the Rag­narök (a cat­a­strophic series of bat­tles and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters that would her­ald the drown­ing and sub­se­quent re­birth of the world) both of Fen­rir’s off­spring would suc­ceed in de­vour­ing their quarry.

With such neg­a­tive de­pic­tions of wolves cir­cu­lat­ing this far back, it is not sur­pris­ing that peo­ple be­gan to fear them, a ter­ror only com­pounded by the oc­ca­sional yet dev­as­tat­ing at­tacks on their live­stock by the very phan­toms they feared. Yet while these apoc­a­lyp­tic sto­ries may seem far-fetched to mod­ern peo­ple, the events in 17th-cen­tury Europe proved that if any­thing, the dis­trust and loathing of wolves was spread­ing.

In 1651, a man by the name of ‘Hans the were­wolf’ was brought be­fore a court in Es­to­nia ac­cused of ly­can­thropy – trans­form­ing into a wolf. Hans ad­mit­ted that he had in fact mu­tated into a ma­raud­ing were­wolf, hav­ing been gifted the guise by a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure in black. As­sum­ing the elu­sive hooded man could only have been Satan, Hans was charged with witch­craft and sen­tenced to death.

Thank­fully, the progress of science has proven that were­wolves don’t stalk the shad­ows look­ing for vic­tims, and as for their four-legged real-life coun­ter­parts, well, things seem to be im­prov­ing for them too. While some Eu­ro­pean gov­ern­ments are now call­ing for wolves to be culled, they are not, tellingly, ask­ing that they be erad­i­cated com­pletely, and with wolves hav­ing reen­tered neigh­bour­ing Bel­gium in Jan­uary 2018 (the first time they've been sighted there in 100 years), the packs of Ger­many are by no means alone.

While I didn’t get the op­por­tu­nity to see any wolves in the flesh my­self, my dis­ap­point­ment only serves to re­in­force the fact that, although wolves are spread­ing across the con­ti­nent, they re­main as elu­sive as ever. If I learned just one thing from my ex­pe­ri­ence in Ger­many, it’s that the myth of the big bad wolf is ex­actly that – a myth.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists fol­low planned routes to col­lect any avail­ableev­i­dence of pass­ing wolves

above Kan­gal dogs are used as com­pan­ion dogs for live­stock to pre­vent any wolves from at­tack­ing them

above The deer of Ger­many's wood­lands are a pri­mary source of food for the coun­try's wolf packs

above The base for the Bio­sphere Ex­pe­di­tions was lo­cated in the Luneb­urg Heath na­ture re­serve in Lower Sax­ony

Pack an­i­mals by na­ture, a lone wolf will be search­ing for a group to join

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.