European wolves have had a tough history. The last wolf was killed in England during the reign of King Henry VII (he of Bosworth Field fame/infamy). Wolves managed to survive in Scotland for another 180 years or so and for another 100 years or so in Ireland. Denmark saw its last wolf killed around the same time as Ireland, but they survived until the 1970s in Norway.
Wolves were hunted nearly to extinction in Finland and Sweden, and were almost wiped out throughout the Balkan peninsular in the 20th Century. As of last year, wolves were regionally extinct in Austria, Belgium, the UK and Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland (according to Wikipedia).
But hold your horses, in case they were bolting with all this lupine talk, because just like Mark Twain, talk of the death of the Swiss grey wolf has been much exaggerated. According to Swissinfo website, the number of wolf packs in the Swiss Alps is actually increasing — dramatically.
Between May 2017 and April 2018, there were 98 wolf packs active in Alpine regions in Europe. This was 23 more than the previous year. Of these, four packs were roaming in Switzerland numbering in total 30 to 40 animals (so not quite extinct, but not quite what it once was!). This increase, of a third throughout the Alpine regions, is much more than the increase of recent years of between 10 to 15 percent. This means that it is likely that there is new “exponential growth” among the Alpine wolf population, according to the Swiss Wolf Group.
The Swiss wolves are protected under the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention, a binding international legal agreement which provides that wolves may only be hunted if they kill more than 25 farm animals within a month.
And indeed this law goes to the heart of the story of the wolf in Europe. As humans expanded into previous areas of wilderness, the wolves’ habitats were destroyed and then wolves were themselves hunted to stop them preying on valuable livestock. Nowadays wolves are making a comeback throughout Europe as they become protected and rural populations decline (especially in Northern Spain and Alpine France).
If there were no rural decline in human populations, one wonders if the legal protections would have been so easily passed. And in Switzerland even a modest number of wolves (30-40, remember) is causing alarm. Farmers are asking for looser hunting restrictions and a relaxation of the animals’ protected status. It remains to be seen if such proposals are so much howling at the moon.