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Resurgence of wolves in Germany sparks debate on culling

September 7, 2023

Some of Germany's top Green Party politicians want to ease restrictions on shooting wolves that attack livestock. The environmentalist party is under pressure to balance nature protection with farmers' livelihoods.

A pack of wolves
Wolves on the rise in GermanyImage: blickwinkel/S. Meyers/picture alliance

To mix metaphors, be careful of wishing for too much of a good thing. Wolves have been brought back from the edge of extinction in Europe, thanks to strong regulation and concentrated conservation efforts.

The predatory wild canines have now become populous enough to pose a threat to livestock — and the livelihoods of those who raise them. An attack in the German state of Lower Saxony at the end of August exacerbated this concern, when wolves hunted down dozens of sheep. Those that weren't killed by the wolves had to be put to sleep due to injuries they had sustained.

The Federal Documentation and Consultation Centre on Wolves (DBBW) confirmed that there were 161 wolf packs in Germany at the end of last year, concentrated in the north and east of the country — up from 17 counted in 2012. The German Farmers' Association (DBV) counted over 3,300 farm animals killed and injured in 2021.

Cem Özdemir
Green Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir said it should be easier to protect livestockImage: Nadja Wohlleben/REUTERS

Greens softening

Wolf management regulations flow from the European Union to its member states, and earlier this week the European Commission announced that a new study would review wolves' protected status.

In Germany, state governments are responsible for implementing wolf management and livestock protection. That is partly a reflection of local needs, which vary between urban and agricultural areas.

It also means it is up to states to provide resources and financial support for livestock protection, such as electric fences.

Critics like Helmut Dammann-Tamke, president of the Lower Saxony Hunters Association, have said wolf populations can be shot without running afoul of European conservation laws, but it's up to Germany's federal authorities to make room for these allowances.

That may be in the pipeline. The decision falls especially heavily on the Green Party, a junior partner in Chancellor Olaf Scholz's three-party coalition. As part of its environmentalist credentials, the Greens, responsible for both the Environment and Agriculture Ministries, tend to come down on the side of wolf protection. However, some of its top officials in the government are extending a hand to the agriculture industry.

"In the future, it has to be easier to take out individual wolves and also entire packs that overcome herd protection measures and kill animals," Cem Özdemir, agriculture minister and senior Green Party figure, told the DPA news agency on Monday.

His comments follow similar remarks by his party colleague, Environment Minister Steffi Lemke.

Reached for comment by DW, a spokesperson for the Greens could not immediately clarify whether these top officials were speaking only for themselves in their government functions or for the party itself. "They said this firstly in their roles as ministers, but at the same time of course they represent the party within their ministries," the spokesperson said.

Dammann-Tamke was not satisfied with the government's new position. "There is significant reason to doubt the seriousness of public statements from Steffi Lemke and Cem Özdemir," he told DW in a statement. "From the text of Steffi Lemke, it seems she is still sticking with the old — that is, current — legal situation. That means: Attack, repeated genetic testing, and then shooting. ... It's unfortunate that Cem Özdemir, who is responsible for animal welfare against the backdrop of many thousands of attack victims, has not added much substance to the debate."

Over 3,000 farm animals were killed by wolves in 2021, according to farmersImage: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance

Competing interests

The agriculture ministry told DW that Özdemir was representing the ministry, as part of his "responsibility for grazing livestock farmers," a spokesperson said. The environment ministry did not respond to an inquiry.

Wolf loving or wolf bashing — the issue is an emotional one that makes headlines and stokes social media ire. Politicians looking to score points with voters can use it as a wedge issue, dividing rural populations that tend to lean conservative and urban ones often associated with environmental causes, which align with the Greens.

Indeed, wolves have already become a campaign issue in Bavaria, where the conservative government, led by State Premier Markus Söder, declared in April that a wolf could be shot if it killed just one farm animal. The move was criticized by the Bavarian Green Party.

However, conservationists and farmers are not always as far apart as it may seem on the surface. Both agree that existing protections already allow shooting wolves as a last resort and "exception," Marie Neuwald, wolf specialist at conservationist group NABU, told DW. Doing so, however, neither deters wolves from going after grazing animals nor can bring dead ones back to life.

"You will only teach a wolf to stay away from herds with measures like an electric fence," she said.

The Green ministers' statements, she added, were simply meant to make the rules of engagement clearer — in limited cases where protection measures fail. They did not, she insisted, mean it was open season on wolves.

Indeed, both Lemke and Özdemir voiced support for more support and less bureaucracy for herders needing to protect their flocks.

That is where pro-wolf and pro-livestock camps can split. The latter may want to hunt them as a means of population control. The former group's position is that "fewer wolves does not automatically mean fewer attacks," Neuwald said.

Among other requirements, she said that shooting the right wolf would mean either the constant presence of a hunter or somehow identifying which wolf was responsible for the attack. Neither is particularly feasible.

"Wolves look pretty similar to each other," she said. "It's not like they wear a sign on their foreheads with a DNA identification," Neuwald said.

Edited by Ben Knight

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