Wolves marching further west!

What was expected eventuated; in the last couple of weeks wolves have been recorded in the Netherlands and in the Belgian Ardennes! At last the wolf has returned in one of the most crowded and urban sprawling countries of the World; The Netherlands. What is the prospect of a sustainable population of wolves in this country?

Expansion of the wolf in Western Europe became known or official in April 2002, when a total of fifteen sheep were found killed in Oberlausitz, near Dresden in northeast Germany. A pack of wolves found a home in a military training area (Stoepel 2004). The wolf had returned in Northwestern Europe, where it had disappeared for more than a century due to relentless persecution. The fall of the Iron Curtain and Communism in Eastern Europe paved the way for the return of the wolf from the east. Currently eleven wolf packs are known to exist in Germany, and a solitary wolf reported as far west as the area between Osnabrück and Hannover; only 150 km east from the Dutch border. This a distance easily bridged by a wolf in a night’s walk or two. And wolves are on the increase. Solitary wolves, particularly young males, can move large distances in a straight march in search of new territory. Concurrently wolves are dispersing from populations in Italy, and establishing themselves firmly in France and into the Pyrenees. The Alps and Carpathians present a great corridor for wolves from Eastern Europe into Central Europe. Romania, for instance holds one of the greatest source populations (read more).

On the evening of 27 August a curious looking dog-like animal (canid) was spotted and photographed by motorists along a busy highway passing along the township of Duiven, near the city of Arnhem in the Netherlands. The animal seemed lost between the heavy traffic and was probably disturbed by mowing of a grain field along the highway, where it could have been day resting.

A wolf-like canid lost in traffic near Arnhem, the Netherlands on 27 August 2011 (©Marcel van Leeuwen).

One of the witnesses, Xander Evers, describes the animal as being “quite relaxed and not frightened”, at one stage running onto the road and then back onto the verge. Xander added that the animal had a short hanging and mottled tail. He just managed to take a photograph before the animal fleed (see below). According to Desiree Versteeg the animal seemed quite anxious and hesitant to cross the road, and was pacing up and down, faced with several human observers. It eventually fled into the cornfield in the background of the picture below, to reappear somewhere on the other side where Desiree Versteeg saw it again. It was momentarily cornered against the fence of a garden centre. Desiree got out of her car and saw the animal clearly, showing marked ‘wolf features’. Desiree is a credible witness, being well-acquainted with dog breeds and having assisted in forensic science work. She clearly saw a wolf in the animal, but expected it to be larger; the animal appeared rather small for a wolf. The animal then became resolute to get away and took a few steps toward her, with “hairs raised”. According to Desiree it then ran off “at incredible speed” and she was just able to take one more blurred picture of the animal.

Wolf-like animal near the A12 highway close to Arnhem on the evening of 27 August (©Xander Evers)

The first pictures published were of low resolution and taken from a distance, and left doubt to whether the canid was a wolf; in comparison with a Saarloos Wolfdog (a Dutch dogbreed with quite a few owners in the vicinity), a Czech Wolfdog or perhaps even a Golden Jackal (Canis aureus). Later and better pictures showed more features that almost definitively identify the animal as ‘wolf’, quite likely a young female, judging from the small size. Shortly after the sighting a sheep was killed with a severing of the throat on a nearby farm. Then the animal dissappeared off the radar, and no further sightings were reported.

The relatively small wolf-like canid as photographed by another witness (©Desiree Versteeg)

In early April this year, in a forest north of the Dutch town Winterswijk near Germany, Erwin van Maanen (ALF) and Peter van der Leer (Pine Marten Research Group Achterhoek) found the carcass of a roedeer. The area is situated about 45 km directly east of the area where the wolf near Duiven was sighted. The female roedeer was completely torn apart, with hair distributed widely around the carcass, even up into a pine tree. An obvious feature was that the carcass had been pulled from one place to another and that the bones were splintered, for example the femurs. The skull was bitten in half and the ribcage was cut along the middle (see pictures below). There were droppings of martens en fox around the carcass, and also a dropping of a wild boar (occasional individual in the area) was found nearby.

According to Desiree Versteeg, who took this last picture of the "wolf" galloping past her car in Duiven, the animal galloped at incredible speed (©Desiree Versteeg).

Consultation with Dutch fox expert Jaap Mulder and the experiences of others indicate that the bone crushing is not likely the work of a fox. Wild boar can however occasionally crush a bone to get at the marrow. Duccio Berzi from CSDL remarked that wild boar often visit carcasses left by wolves in Tuscany (Italy), but mostly feed on intestines and on the multitude of scavenging insects. See video of wolves killing a roe deer and subsequent scavengers below by CSDL.

A stray dog cannot be excluded as the main culprit, but these are rare and strictly controlled in The Netherlands and would not likely tear a roedeer carcass apart to the extent found, unless it was a very hungry and abandoned dog. This may have been the work of a wolf, substantiated by photographs of wolf kills and expert judgment of international wolf experts, including David Mech.

Completely eaten roedeer consistent with wolf kill (note that scat top-left is of a fox) near the Dutch town of Winterswijk and the German border, beginning of April 2011 (©E. van Maanen). The photo bottom-right showing a roedeer stag actually killed by wolves is from Duccio Berzi (©CSDL).

On August 4 a Belgian film crew from the popular natural history program “Dieren in Nesten” filmed a wolf with a trail camera in the province of Namen near Gedinne, in the southern Ardennes (see film below). The animal was also seen by local people (mistaken for a lynx!) and had killed several sheep. This film proves the return of the wolf to Belgium, after the last wolves were officially shot in the Ardennes by King Leopold II in 1844. This wolf may originate from the growing wolf population in France, with a front closing in on the Belgian border.

There have been a few more ‘wolf’ or strange canid sightings in Belgium and in The Netherlands in the last couple of years, but identity of the animals was never confirmed by way of photographs or DNA-material.

The return of the wolf in a very build-up country like The Netherlands raises important issues. Beside the expected discourse on predation of livestock, preventive and compensatory mechanisms, and acceptance by society, the importance of establishing, protecting and managing a sustainable wolf population is a challenging issue. The German situation will probably be exemplary, and we may expect certain animosity against the coming of the wolf as well.

The wolf as a keystone species drives important ecosystem process and contributes to a high degree to completer ecosystems (©ICAS Romania)

How individual wolves survive and packs of reproducing wolves establish themselves in a technocratic country, and be genetically viable, will remain to be seen and would perhaps defy some ecological rules or be beyond expectations. According to Ilka Reinhardt, a study of the genetic variability of the German wolves showed they are closely related. A new genetic study currently performed will hopefully show that wolves from Poland may provide the needed genetic diversity (read more on genetic maintenance). Advancement of wolves from both Germany-Poland and from France and the Mediterranean, allowing genetic variability within a new population, is certainly hopeful.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Roeland Vermeulen (FreeNature), Ilka Reinhardt (LUPUS Wildlife Consulting), David Mech, Duccio Berzi (CSDL), Desiree Versteeg, Xander Evers & Marcel van Leeuwen.

Wolf resources

 

Erwin van Maanen

Wolf tracks in sand and snow (©E. van Maanen)