Researchers have tracked Naya from eastern Germany into the Netherlands and now Flanders.
The first recorded wolf on Belgian soil for at least 100 years has made her bloody mark.
Farmers in north-east Flanders have been put on high alert after evidence emerged that Naya, a female originally from eastern Germany that has been making a pioneering trek across Europe, had killed two sheep and injured a third near the Belgian town of Meerhout.
Naya’s arrival in Belgium completes the return of the predator to every mainland country in Europe, turning back decades of persecution, although not every community might welcome it.
“Any sheep farmers should know [they are] in range of this wolf,” said Hugh Jansman, a researcher from the Wageningen University and research centre, who has been following Naya’s westward trek across hundreds of miles of European landscape.
Naya, who will turn two in May, was given a collar with a tracking device when she was six months old by the Technical University of Dresden, but it was only in October last year that she left her parental pack in rural Lübtheener Heide, between Hamburg and Berlin, to push the boundaries for wolf-kind and strike out across Germany, into the Netherlands and, finally, across the border to Belgium on 3 January.
She has seemingly settled in a large military area near the town of Leopoldsburg, about 15 miles (25km) from the Dutch border, in Flemish Belgium, Jansman said
But Naya’s arrival is only the latest sign of the swift repopulation of Europe by the predator. Last year scientists revealed evidence that a breeding pack of wolves had settled in west Jutland in Denmark – the first in the country for 200 years.
“We are at the front of the migratory wave of wolves,” Jansman said. “In 2000 the first wolf pack with cubs was in eastern Germany. Currently there are 74 cub packs with cubs in eastern Germany. And in Lower Saxony, closest to the Dutch border, in 2012 there was only one settled female but currently there are 14 packs of cubs.
“Agricultural areas are being abandoned by people so they are re-wilding again, leaving lots of space for carnivores. The countryside is being abandoned by young people who are moving to the cities.
“This increase in wolves numbers and distribution area is going quite rapidly. So it is not a matter of if wolves are coming to the Netherlands, and probably Belgium, but how fast. We have seen in recent weeks how fast they can go.”
The data from Naya’s transmitter suggests she has been covering between 30km and 70km a night, traversing swamplands and forests as she has sought a home in which to establish her own pack, with reports in the Netherlands of dead sheep neatly tallying with her movements.
“Some wolves just stay in their area, some others, about 20%, go on a trek and walk hundreds of kilometres and settle down,” Jansman said. “Naya is in the blue ocean, as there is so much free habitat for her.
“She passed through four or five natural parks in the Netherlands but she left them all after one or two days showing that she was looking for something else.
“This is the first place where she found a big military area. It could be the smell of humans is much less in a military area. It’s a prime reason to settle down.”
“I followed the places where she stayed,” Jansman added. “We found leftover roe deer and hares, so she has been eating wild animals as well, as expected. And one thing we can tell is that she has totally avoided humans, and anything to do with humans.”
Harmless or vicious hunter? The uneasy return of Europe’s wolves
This winter the first wolf in 100 years arrived in Belgium, completing the animals’ return to mainland Europe. But can Europeans relearn how to live alongside the predators?
To some it is a roe deer that eats meat: an adaptable animal capable of living peaceably alongside humans. To others it is a demonic killing machine that ruins farmers – and whose presence is a symbol of the city’s contempt for rural life.
The wolf is on the rise in Europe. This winter it finally reconquered Belgium, the last mainland European country from which it had been absent after decades of persecution.
After crossing the Alps from Italy to France in 1992 and from Poland into Germany at the turn of this century, the wolf has slipped into densely populated territory where people have no memory of living alongside it. Experts say Germany’s wolf population is growing “exponentially”– and spreading, into Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark, which discovered its first wolf pack for 200 years last spring.
The wolf is protected by EU law but a rising tide of hostility is encouraging some politicians to push to kill it. France approved a cull of up to 40 wolves following protests last year. When Germany’s wolf population reached 60 packs, its agriculture minister recently argued that numbers must be regulated by culling. Finland has culled its wolf population down to 150, and this winter Norway is slaughtering about half of its wolf population of less than 100 animals.
The cull sparked protests in cities and towns across Norway last weekend after the courts rejected a legal challenge to the cull by WWF Norway. Conservationists are appealing against the decision but the next court date is in April – after the wolf hunting season has finished.
The Norwegian government wants just four to six litters of wolf puppies each year. “We will be keeping the population down to a level that is critically endangered, which we think is against the law,” said Ingrid Lomelde, conservation director for WWF Norway.
According to Lomelde, the resurgence of hostility to the wolf is driven by political parties seeking votes in rural areas. “There is a perceived conflict between rural and more urban areas. The wolf became the symbol of how people in rural areas would like to take that power back and have less centralised decision-making,” she said.
But for Erling Aas-Eng, a farmer and head of the farmers’ union in Hedmark, where wolves are particularly numerous, the wolf demonstrates the gulf between town and country. “This distance is growing. One generation back, everybody had a grandmother living in rural areas. Now our lives are not familiar to people living in the big cities anymore.”
Norway’s government offers financial support to help wolf-troubled farmers switch from sheep to cattle but it is difficult to change business models and summer pastures won’t always support cattle instead of sheep, according to Aas-Eng. Norway’s upland pastures aren’t lush, so flocks can’t be securely fenced in small areas like in other European countries. “We need a lot of wires and a lot of electricity and most of the time the wolf finds a way through the fence,” said Aas-Eng.
Many farmers would rather Norway’s small wolf population was non-existent. “Our point of view is we shouldn’t have wolves in Norway,” said Aas-Eng. “The original Scandinavian population died out in the 1950s. These wolves are reinvented from the big Finnish-Russian wolf population. It’s not a good idea to allow them in. It makes for big conflict.”
Since the first wolf pack arrived in Saxony in 2000, Germany has led the way in how to adapt to the return of the wolf.
Many German states have “wolf commissioners” who work with farmers to provide them with electric fences and livestock guard dogs. Farmers receive financial support (up to €15,000 (£13,000) over three years in Brandenburg) and generous compensation for dead livestock. In Saxony, a management plan ensures that “problem” wolves that prey on livestock or get too close to humans are GPS-collared to understand their behaviour and may be deterred with rubber bullets; shooting a “problem” wolf is a last resort.
Public education has encouraged acceptance. The government-funded Wolves in Saxony programme educates local people, takes wolf scats into schools (studies show the German wolf’s diet is roe deer, followed by red deer and wild boar) and children pretend to be wolves or deer in role-playing games. In 2006, 84% of the public in Saxony was positive or neutral about wolves but, as the wolf population rises, Philipp Kob of Wolves in Saxony says that figure will have fallen.
What happens next?
“There is an ecological level where the wolf will get to a stable population but the other question is where the acceptance level of the human population is,” said Kob.
Valeska de Pellegrini, wolf commissioner in the German state of Brandenburg, is hopeful. “If we are not used to something, we are afraid,” she said. “When the wolves are new to an area, there is lots of hesitation and people don’t like to have the wolf but if they learn to coexist over the years, people get more friendly with the wolf. But if the political system goes in another direction I’m afraid that it will be a bad time for the wolf.”
The future must be “land sharing”, where humans and wolves co-exist in densely-populated areas, according to Guillaume Chapron, associate professor in ecology at Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences.
While Chapron praises German efforts to adapt to the wolf, he said the rest of Northern Europe “is a model to avoid for predator conservation”. He detects more willingness to live alongside wolves in southern Europe, particularly with 3,000 wolves on the Iberian peninsula.
“My intuitive understanding is that in Nordic countries we expect society to be working perfectly, rules are followed and the government takes care of everything. When you have a trouble-making species in a society where everything is supposed to work perfectly, that’s very disturbing. In southern Europe we accept society to be a little bit messy. When wolves create problems, it’s just how life is supposed to be.”
According to Chapron, Europe must learn from Africa. “It’s insulting to the world that one of the richest countries, Norway, cannot have more than 50 wolves, considering Botswana, Mozambique and other extremely poor countries in Africa, are working really very hard to keep their lions. Imagine the outcry if those nations sought to kill half of their lions? We can’t even say Norway is trying but failing – it’s government policy to have as few wolves as possible.
“We need African countries to teach us, rich Europeans, how to live with predators.”