Wolves are doing so well in Germany, and adapting to so many different habitats, that they are likely to spread from their current strongholds in the eastern parts of the country to become part of the natural landscape nationwide.
It was 11 years ago that a pack was discovered in Germany again, after the species had been effectively exterminated in the middle of the 19th century. Their protected status in Poland and Germany means their return is “unstoppable” according to Beate Jessel, president of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN).
And having been restricted to the eastern and southern parts of the country, the wolves are starting to spread out, adapting to the way people have shaped the world.
A two-year study by the BfN involved fitting six wolves from the Lausitz area in Saxony, with GPS tracking devices to see how far and where the young animals went after leaving their packs.
“This is the first study in central Europe where the migration routes were followed by satellite, and the residency of wolves in their territory was investigated,” Jessel said in a ministry statement.
“They did not only cross rivers and Autobahns, but also felt comfortable in a variety of habitats – so long as they were left in peace.”
One young male wolf covered 1,550 kilometres in two months, heading east into Belarus, while another stayed with her family for two years. There were also great differences in territory then used – between 49 and 375 square kilometres – and not just woodlands, but also open land like fields. One adult female even dug several holes less than 500 metres from a heavily-used road, in which to raise her young.
“Wolves do not need wilderness, rather they can rapidly spread in our landscape and fit into the most varied habitats,” said Jessel.
“One should thus be prepared for the appearance of wolves across Germany, and use management plans to establish the most conflict-free relations between people and wolves as is possible.”
She told the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ) that wolves have no desire to annoy humans.
“It loves living space in which it can retreat, where it has quiet,” she told WAZ.
But problems have already emerged, with reports of wolves killing sheep in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Bavaria – and wolves being killed in return.
At least 17 wolves have been killed on German roads since 2001, while hunters have also shot at least 13 wolves dead since 1990, although Jessel told WAZ that the numbers are probably under-reported.
“Hunters know that the animals are protected, that shooting them will be seen as a crime,” she said.
In the end, Jessel told the newspaper, education will be important as Germans learn to deal with wolves in their presence after a long absence.
The wolf is not an evil beast but also not a cuddly toy, she emphasised.
“It’s a wild animal,” she said.