Wolves spreading westward across Europe

August 26th, 2008 - 10:52 am ICT by IANS  

Hamburg, Aug 26 (DPA) The mournful howling of wolves is echoing these days through the forested woodlands of eastern Germany for the first time in centuries, according to conservationists, who say that wolves are spreading into Western Europe now that all their natural enemies have disappeared.The cunning canine is even outsmarting its most dangerous mortal enemy - man. Wolves are encroaching on urbanized areas, even being spotted on the outskirts of large cities like Berlin.

Earlier this year, reports said that red foxes are also on the increase. Ironically, the increase in foxes has also benefited hungry wolves, which feed on foxes and their pups. Experts say the disappearance of lynxes and brown bears in the 20th century has helped to reverse the fall in the fox population. Without those natural enemies, foxes have been able to establish themselves as the dominant carnivore in many areas of Central Europe.

And with the foxes on the march across Western Europe, wolves are following literally in their footprints. In addition, the widespread eradication of rabies has also been a boon to wild canine families, since rabies has always been the primary biological enemy of these creatures.

Wolves have been sighted in recent weeks in a forest near the town of Ludwigslust, located midway between Berlin and Hamburg, Germany’s two largest cities. Wolves are already fairly frequently spotted east of Berlin and in Poland. But Hamburg, a seaport on the North Sea at the base of the Danish peninsula, has not seen any wolves for centuries.

“It is only a matter of time before wolves spread all across northern Germany in their move westward,” says Professor Josef Reichholf of the University of Munich.

“Northern Germany is the perfect habitat for the wolf,” says Reichholf. “Aside from two large cities, Berlin and Hamburg, the region is sparsely settled. There are vast areas of woodlands, lakes and dark forests.”

Wolves and foxes are only the start of a resurgence in wildlife unseen since the Middle Ages, the Munich biologist predicts.

“Weasels and otters and raccoons are already well re-establishing themselves,” he says. “And the European moose elk is poised to move westward. Indeed, elk are already relatively common in the Czech republic.”

Many of the smaller mammals, such as raccoons and foxes are encroaching on urban areas, and are bringing wolves in their wake. Reichholf says it is not the food that humans eat which interests foxes so much as the animal companions of humans - rats, mice, pigeons - and also the plentiful and often overflowing garbage that humans generate. Raccoons thrive on human garbage.

This does not mean that wolves will be moving into cities, however. He points out that wolves are shy creatures who avoid humans whenever possible.

Two wolves were spotted by hunters in eastern Germany near the Polish border recently, according to Volker Boehning, head of the state hunting association in that region.

“Wolves are certainly welcome here as they enrich the local wildlife assortment,” he says. “Of course, if they become a pest, hunters will have to go after them to keep their population number in check as we do with red foxes.”

But these canine carnivores, such as foxes and wolves, actually help other species, such as song birds.

“They decimate not only mice but also other small mammals and snakes and other egg thieves,” says Torsten Reinwald of the German Hunting Association.

“We actually get appeals from residents to kill more foxes,” Reinwald says, “because they are eliminating too many predators in some nature wildlife preserves.”

Health experts say the large canines are helpful in eliminating road kill and other cadavers that can pollute rivers and ponds.

But they pose a threat to European zoos and wildlife parks that hitherto have never had to build predator fences.

Northern Germany will be a turning point for the wolf population, according to Reichholf.

“This is the region where we shall see whether the wolf spreads further westward and, if so, in what numbers,” Reichholf says.

“The main problem will be the cliché of the ‘big bad wolf’ in the minds of many people. Wolves can, of course, be dangerous to humans in certain situations, generally when they are backed into a corner. But they are generally no threat to humans,” he says.

Working in favour of the wolf’s spread across Europe is a change in the mindset of modern-day humans.

“Europeans generally are very mindful of the dire effects that humans have had on the environment over the centuries and they are for the most part happy to see the return of bears and wolves and other creatures after near-extinction of those species,” he says.

“As more predators move in, the balance of nature returns to normal and we see a reduction in rats and mice and rabbits,” he says. “Those small creatures form the diet of predators such as the German Sea Eagle, which was the emblem of Germany for centuries but which was driven to the verge of extinction by unthinking hunters.”

Now, he says, the German Sea Eagle is once again being spotted over the coastal forests of Northern Germany - forests where if you listen carefully on a dark night, you may also hear the mournful howl of wolves.

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