Wolf Land - a predator returns

Big predators like bears, wolves and lynxes are returning to areas from which they have been eradicated for centuries. Denmark has had wild wolves since 2012, and those who thought that the return of the wolves would go off peacefully were terribly mistaken. Nothing is that simple when it comes to wolves.

Their re-immigration after being absent from the Danish landscape for almost two hundred years is anything but straightforward, and involuntarily the fabled predator now has the leading part in a heated debate. Everyone has taken a position, and when it comes to the wolf, emotions are as weighty as facts.

Behind fake news, political populism and polarisation the parties involved meet the predator on widely different terms. Wolf advisers meet frustrated sheep breeders who are trying to solve a completely new problem. Local citizens stand divided: Is it possible at all to be next door neighbours to a pack of wolves? Some can’t hide their excitement about the return of the wolf, and the wolf enthusiasts help scientists present facts and scientific documentation. Others join “Wolf-free Denmark”, founded on the very day a local man took matters into his own hands and shot a wolf in the West Jutland wolf zone.

Wolf Land is a story about the clash between humans and wild animals.

Read it online in Danish at Politiken

The Thy-Wolf. After being absent for almost 200 years, scientists found a dead wolf in Nationalpark Thy in late december 2012. The 3,5-year-old male wolf had migrated at least 850 km from its birthplace in Germany.

The hobby sheep breeder. Red flesh lights up between the white wool. Dead lambs already sold for easter lay scattered on the field in Vemb and DNA tests proves that wolves are to blame for the bloodshed.

The hobby sheep breeder. “I can’t sleep at night, when i think about the sheep being killed by wolves”, says Morten Thøgersen Statistics from Germany show that livestock make up 0,6% of wolves diet. A small amount, but it can have a huge impact on the sheep breeders economy.

The wolf zone. The plantation in Stråsø has it all. Big forest and heath areas, low population density and huge amounts of deer. So two wolves settled down and got eight pups. As a result the Danish authorities identified a 330 km2 at-risk zone in Jutland coined the Western Wolf Zone.

The Debater. “We don’t need the fucking wolves. Luckily many of us support S.D.S”. The acronym is short for ‘Shoot. Dig. Shut-up,’ explains Jonna Odgaard about the anonymous note she received after publishing a contribution to the public debate about wolves.

The Debater. “Wolves belong in the danish nature and we need a top predator to regulate the ecosystem. In 13000 years its has only been gone for 200,” says environmental journalist and member of the Danish Nature Conservation Society Jonna Odgaard.

The info meeting. “Is it safe to take a walk in the forest at night?” asks an attendee at the info meeting hosted in the local city hall to kill the worst rumours and myths about wolves.

The enthusiast. “Holy shit, this one has a lot of photos!” Exclaims Leif Melgaard. He walks determinedly around in the grey drizzle emptying the wildlife cameras for photos and videos. Besides working as energy coordinator i the local municipality he is a devout wolf enthusiast.

The enthusiast. Although wolves inhabit the woods the elusive animals are notoriously hard to catch on camera. But Leif Meldgaard is a patient man: “We have at least 50.000 images of deer alone. In average there is wolf on one in a thousand images.”

The enthusiast. Leif Meldgaard does not have any formal science background. “It is citizen science”, he says about the work. Leif Meldgaard has been part of several local groups of wolf enthusiasts, but now he works alone. 

The association. Coffee and cake is 20 kroner, enrollment is 50. The founding general meeting of Wolf Free Denmark is held at Ørnhøj mini gym. The fight to once again exterminate wolves from Denmark has begun.

The sheep breeder. Experience from both Germany and Sweden show that proper fencing can reduce wolf attacks significantly. “Not by a longshot do i believe that fences can keep wolves out, even if its electric and 110 cm high. I refuse to believe it,” says Jørgen Blazejewicz, the biggest sheep breeder in Denmark.

The sheep breeder. “In the beginning i thought it would be fine. But not anymore. There is only one solution, and it is to shoot the wolves that attacks our livestock,” Says Jørgen Blazejewicz, who has lost a lot of time and money on wolf attacks.

The Opponent. “The experts say that Denmark has enough space for 100 wolves. Then it is only a matter of time before we see attacks on people. Is that how Denmark should be?”, asks Anette McWhan, who is a board memberin Wolf Free Denmark.

The Wolf. Wolves are apex predators and thus potentially dangerous to humans. But it's natural shyness makes the risk of attacks imperceptibly little.

The Supporter. Besides the real fur on his vest, Benny Bakkestrøm has not seen any wolves in the area, but are pleased that they are back.

The Wolf Consultant. In 2017 and until april 2018 wolf consultants from The Danish Nature Agency responded to 127 possible wolf attacks. By post-mortem examinations and DNA-tests 30 of them were concluded to be wolf attacks.

The Wolf Consultant. All the DNA samples from possible wolf attacks are sent to the German Senckenberg Institute in Frankfurt to be tested. The samples are collected with cotton buds in the bitemarks to get spit from the attacker.

The Wolf Consultant. “It has taken a solid bite of the hind leg, and there are teeth marks on the throat,” Says Jens Henrik Jakobsen while bent over the sheep. He is one of four wolf consultants responding to possible wolf attacks.

The wolf killer. East of Ulfborg a car pulls to a halt on a dirt road. A single shot is fired from the driver's seat and the wolf drops to the ground. The pack has now been reduced by one.

The Scientist. “Wolf is without comparison the most crazy subject to work with. We really have to tread wisely,” says Kent Olsen from the Museum of Natural History in Aarhus, who is responsible for the official monitoring of wolves in Denmark.

The Scientist. The danish wolf monitoring program consists of to axes. First by actively monitoring with both DNA and wildlife cameras. Secondly by passively collecting observations and findings from citizens.

The Scientist. Scat from wolves are gathered and kept in small plastic bags in a large walk-in freezer in the basement of the museum for later testing.

The Neighbor. “I found out that i’m not really that afraid,” says Anne-Sofie Hermansen who lives right in the heart of the wolf zone and has been a participant in Project Wolf Dialog managed by Aarhus University.

The Guardian Dog. After having tried both donkeys and alpacas to scare wolves, Aase Svendsen now puts her faith in the large maremma guard dogs. Guard dogs has been used for millennia to protect livestock.

The Guardian Dog. Aase Svendens maremma dogs are named after former danish Ministers for the Environment. It is up to the new owners of the pup to continue the tradition.

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