Nature diaries: The big bad wolf and I
Should we really fear them?
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