Happy New Year everyone! I’ve started the year well: I’ve found one answer to the youth unemployment problem that Shannon highlighted in her last post – a European wolf pelt industry.  I’m not serious, the greenies would have a fit, but the opportunity is certainly there, as the wolf is making a comeback across Europe.

For example, in Spain’s newest national park in the Guadarrama hills, the wolf is back after a 70 year absence:

“There have been sightings for several years of lone males, but camera traps recently picked up a family of three cubs, two adults and a juvenile. To the consternation of the farmers who believed that this ancient foe had left the hills for ever, breeding packs are expected to follow.

In the past two months around 100 sheep and cattle have been killed near Buitrago, in the northern foothills of the Guadarrama mountains, says Juan Carlos Blanco, a wolf specialist and adviser to the Spanish environment ministry.”

According to Blanco, there are now six packs within 100km of Madrid. There are now thought to be 250 breeding groups and more than 2,000 individual wolfs throughout Spain, making the country a “wolf stronghold”.  This is good news for the wolves, but not so good for the farmers or their livestock.  In the past 7 years, wolves have attacked 13,000 sheep, 200 goats and several hundred cows across Spain.

This is not just an Iberian phenomenon, isolated south of the Pyrenees. No, the rest of the European continent is also seeing a lupine comeback.  The International Union Conservation of Nature has estimated that European wolf populations have quadrupled since 1970 to around 25,000.  Wolves have been seen a few miles from Berlin, Rome and Athens. 

“They are also reportedly expanding their range in France, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia and Italy, with sightings in Belgium and Denmark. In the past 10 years, says Blanco, wolves have arrived in the Pyrenees from Italy and the Alps. “They have crossed 450km and a lot of roads to get there. So far they are not breeding there, but it’s only a matter of time,” he says.

In Germany, where they were hunted out of existence in the 19th century, there are now thought to be around 160 wolves in 17 packs in the state of Brandenburg. Cubs were born last year in Heidekreis in Lower Saxony for the first time in 150 years, and there were sightings in the states of Hessen and Rheinland-Pfalz.”

It is remarkable, but in the 19th century the European wolf was almost driven to extinction as hunters got paid bounties by grateful villagers.  How and why has this wolf resurgence occurred? As the Guardian notes, wolves “traditionally flourish in times of political and economic crisis”.  The flight of people to cities from the countryside for jobs, opportunities and education has meant that the human pressure upon wolves has lessened in recent times.

“Their return to Europe in the past 20 years is thought to be linked to widespread rural depopulation and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The demise of the USSR saw a near 50% increase in the number of wolves in the 1990s, as animals that had been kept under control by state-sponsored culling were left to roam unchecked and many packs crossed into sparsely populated areas of Poland, Germany and Scandinavia.

Some conservationists say the economic recession in Spain, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere has also helped them spread into new areas.

‘Land is being abandoned. The woods regrow, so there are more deer, less hunting pressure, and more food for wolves,’ says Peter Taylor, British ecologist and editor of Rewilding journal, who lives in the Czech Republic. ‘Wolves are returning to many of their old haunts in Europe and also wandering into long-forgotten territory. There are breeding pairs now in Germany, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Croatia, Alpine Italy, the Apennines and Alpine France,’ he says.”

This return of wild animals to rural areas abandoned by humans has been noted already in Japan and it will be interesting to see if the trend continues as the European and Japanese population age and decline and become more urbanised.  Perhaps in the future tourists will go to Paris to see the sights and the city of lights and then will travel to Versailles to hunt wolves, bear and stag as the French Kings used to do 300 years ago.   

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...