Looking for wolves in Switzerland is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Perhaps even harder as there are only a handful of them roaming throughout the countryâ€™s vast mountain ranges and alpine meadows made famous by the 19th century childrenâ€™s classic, and later the popular television series, Heidi. But, for many living in the Swiss Alps, this is a handful too many.
Looking for wolves in Switzerland is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Perhaps even harder as there are only a handful of them roaming throughout the country’s vast mountain ranges and alpine meadows made famous by the 19th century children’s classic, and later the popular television series, Heidi. But, for many living in the Swiss Alps, this is a handful too many.
“If I ever came across a wolf, I would shoot it,” a Swiss hunter from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino said point-blank. “They are cold, killing machines that threaten farmers and their livestock.”
It is attitudes like this which first led to the wolf’s extinction in Switzerland some 100 years ago. Despite continued persecution (and vilification through numerous folk tales, such as Peter and the Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs and others), the European wolf (Canis lupus) is showing signs of a come back as several have sneaked across the border in recent years from Italy via France in search of new territory and food.
The presence of a single male wolf was first spotted in the Swiss canton of Valais in 1995 (and reportedly killed in 1996). Since then there have been wolf traces and other sightings in the south-eastern cantons of GraubÃ¼nden and Ticino. No breeding has so far been recorded, but the first female sighting came in July 2002 along the Swiss-Italian border near Valais.
“In the beginning there were rumours being spread that the wolves were being brought in by environmental groups,” said Doris Calegari, a large carnivore specialist with WWF’s European Alpine Programme. “No one actually believed that they came on their own naturally.”
A wolf’s paradise
Wildlife experts believe that there are up to six wolves in Switzerland, originating from packs in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, some 600km away. Because of increased wolf protection in Italy in the 1970s — resulting in increased wolf populations (today, there are about 600 wolves in Italy) — some have been forced to look for greener pastures. And, nothing is greener than the alpine slopes of Switzerland.
“We welcome this natural recovery in Switzerland,” said Calegari. “Wolves are one of the alpine region’s top three predators, along with the brown bear and lynx. The fact that they have returned is an indicator that the habitat is much healthier than it was in the past.”
There were once hundreds of wolves living throughout Switzerland, but years of population growth, industrialization and forest conversion for agriculture and logging saw their habitat encroached upon. The loss of mountain forests, coupled with uncontrolled hunting, also resulted is the reduction of the deer population, the wolves’ main prey. With little game left in the Alps, large carnivores turned to domesticated animals, like sheep and goat, for their meals, often bringing them into conflict with farmers who saw them as a threat to their livestock. Seen as dangerous competitors, the wolf and the lynx were exterminated in the Alps.
Today, however, mountain forests have recovered, and with it an abundance of herbivores, thanks to more protected areas and better land management. Switzerland is now a true wolf ”˜paradise’ with large populations of roe and red deer, marmots and chamois (horned antelope). They never lost their taste, though, for easily accessible livestock, which often graze without protection in the high alpine meadows.
“Wolves are opportunists,” said Joanna Schoenenberger, WWF-Switzerland’s European Alpine Programme Officer working on wolf issues in Ticino. “Yes, they will go after sheep, but there is now enough of a deer population to keep them happy.”
Debunking the myth that wolves hunt for ”˜fun’ and not only for food, a recent camera trap showed a wolf in Ticino returning to a deer it killed the night before.
“Mass killing by wolves is extremely rare,” added Calegari. “Even when going after livestock, the loss of just a few animals is more common.
Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?
Not everyone has welcomed the predator’s reappearance. Since crossing into the Swiss Alps from Italy, wolves have been blamed for hundreds of attacks on sheep and goats. In spite of compensation for losses by the government, resistance against the wolf returning to Switzerland is strong, especially among sheep farmers and hunters.
According to the Swiss-based KORA Carnivore Research Centre, 44 sheep were reportedly killed in Switzerland in 2004 by a large canine out of some 250,000 grazing sheep. The numbers are significantly lower than 2000 when 105 sheep were killed. From 1998 to 2003, 456 sheep and goats have been compensated as wolf kills.
However, not all livestock attacks are the work of wolves, but by their next of kin. The European wolf is a bit smaller and leaner than its North American counterpart, and can easily be confused with a large dog. In Ticino alone there are about 80 goats and 200 sheep killed by dogs each year. Despite the figures, farmers and hunters are still quick to blame wolves for their losses.
“Wolves present a problem, especially as there are lots of sheep which graze without shepherds,” said Marco Mondada, President of the Ticino Hunters Federation. “Farmers’ interests should not be put at unnecessary risk by animals which can be so destructive. They must be managed.”
Although the wolf is legally protected under Swiss law, as well as under the 1979 Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, farmers and hunters have in a number of instances won the support of local government to go after the few existing wolves.
Regulations were introduced in 2001 permitting the shooting of any wolf believed to have killed at least 50 sheep over a four-month period, or 25 in a single month. The minimum has now been lowered to 35 sheep over a four-month time frame, and may continue to be lowered if wolf attacks continue. But the law is not totally on the side of wolf hunting. WWF recently won the right from the Swiss Federal Supreme Court to oppose decisions made by cantonal authorities in Valais to shoot a female wolf. WWF is now appealing the Valais cantonal court to overturn the decision.
Wolf depredation may occur at any time during the year, but most attacks tend to take place in July and August when sheep are left unattended for long periods of time high up on the alpine pastures. Some pastures can be located at more than 2,500m and spread out over several square kilometers. Last summer, Giacomo Cominelli, a shepherd of 40 years, saw his large flock of sheep attacked five times. Over ten sheep, including lambs, were killed, and many more injured.
“It’s a terrible thing to lose one’s sheep, not just from a financial point of view, but emotional as well,” Cominelli said. “If I wasn’t a shepherd I probably would be for the wolf, but the sheep are my livelihood and I need to protect them the best I can. Killing a wolf would solve a lot of problems, but I think I would have a dilemma killing it myself.”
Send in the dogs
Fortunately, Cominelli has not been quick to take up arms like some of his colleagues, and has been open to several alternatives supported by WWF and local government, including the use of specially-trained livestock guard dogs.
“The use of guard dogs is something shepherds haven’t used in generations in Switzerland,” said Alberto Stern, a veterinarian outside of Bellinzona who raises Great Pyreneans, a large dog breed suitable for livestock protection. Maremmano-Abruzzeses are also being used.
“These guard dogs are the best possibility of reducing wolf attacks. They work because they become attached to the sheep starting at birth and instinctively defend their herd.”
Although not 100 per cent foolproof, there is evidence that they have reduced livestock loss in some areas, not just against wolves, but also against fox and golden eagles, who also prey on small lambs. According to Stern, there are about 70-80 dogs in Switzerland being used by shepherds for this purpose.
Trying to diffuse the growing human-wildlife conflict, WWF’s European Alpine Programme initiated a livestock guard dog project to help those being affected by the wolf attacks.
“When we saw the problems farmers were having with their sheep, we decided to take measures to help protect them,” Schoenenberger said. “We encouraged farmers open to the idea to buy and train dogs against potential wolf attacks. We are now offering advice on how to choose the right animals for protection.”
For those not comfortable with dogs, donkeys have also been trained as they are larger than wolves and can be equally aggressive when confronted by a threat. WWF has also helped farmers put up fences as another defense system against predators, and is taking groups — school kids and adults alike — out to ”˜wolf country’ to meet with farmers to improve understanding between rural and city folk.
Last year, WWF volunteers helped Ottavio Cotti-Cottini construct an electric fence to guard his herd of alpine goats. Earlier that year, and the year before, Cottini lost nine of his goats in separate wolf attacks.
“I think more and more farmers are realizing that there are other ways to protect their livestock without having to shoot wolves,” Schoenenberger added. “This is very encouraging.”
Wolf recovery in Switzerland is at a very early stage and its future by no means secure. But, the reality of the situation is that more wolves are expected to cross the border in the years to come. Its permanent residency status will depend, however, on how well all sides involved in the issue can come to a common understanding about the wolf’s place in the Alps.
“If you think about it, the whole area of the Alps is former wolf territory. It is a fact that they lived here long before we did,” Schoenenberger said. “Their return would be an important contribution to enriching Switzerland's biodiversity.”
*Mark Schulman is Managing Editor at WWF International
”¢ Launched in 1999 by WWF-Austria, WWF-France, WWF-Germany, WWF-Italy and WWF-Switzerland, the WWF European Alpine Programme works to achieve the conservation of biodiversity in the Alps through cross-boundary collaboration, as well as with other NGOs and interested partners.
”¢ Compared to the North American wolf, which can weigh up to 80kg, wolves found in western Europe tend to be smaller and leaner and weigh on average 28”“38kg. A young, male wolf can travel up to 40km in one night.
”¢ The following are a list of current wolf populations in Europe according to IUCN-World Conservation Union: Norway (about 15); Czech Republic (up to 20); France (about 50); Hungary (less than 50); Sweden (up to 100); Portugal (200-300); Greece (less than 500); Italy (about 600); Poland (600); Bulgaria (up to 1,000); Spain (2,000); Romania (2,500); and Russia (20,000).
”¢ The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is the third largest predator in Europe after the brown bear and the wolf, and the largest of the four lynx species. The lynx was almost entirely wiped out throughout the continent as a consequence of human activities. Populations once numbered as low as 700, but today 7,000”“8,000 individuals survive. As a result of a successful reintroduction programme in the 1970s, the species is once again present in alpine countries. In Switzerland, there are about 100.
Source: WWF International
Photo: Canis lupus Grey wolf Portrait; Captive © WWF-Canon / Chris Martin BAHR