Facts about wolves in Europe

Posted on September, 13 2023

There are many questions about the wolf’s presence in Europe and subsequently, many misconceptions and statements not based on scientific evidence. Below, we present facts and provide answers to the commonly asked questions on the wolves in Europe.

Fact 1: Wolves in Europe are NOT dangerous to humans.

In Europe, the wolf is not considered to be dangerous for humans by scientists. The claim of President von der Leyen that the concentration of wolf packs has become a danger for livestock and potentially for humans is not based on science. There have been no fatal attacks on humans reported in Europe in the 21st century. 

European Commission’s in-depth analysis of the wolf in Europe notes that there has not been a single verified fatal wolf attack on humans in Europe in the last 40 years, despite the large number of wildlife biologists collecting reliable information on large carnivores.

Scientific evidence has shown that wolves do not treat humans as prey, and fatal encounters are exceptional, in contrast to other real and significant threats to human life that should be tackled immediately (such as extreme weather events or car accidents and pollution). Damage to livestock is often linked to the lack of adequate supervision and/or physical protection. 

Fact 2: Wolves play a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and biodiversity 

Wolves, like other large carnivores, are predators and are at the top of the trophic pyramid of the ecosystem, playing a vital role in maintaining ecosystem balance and healthy biodiversity. For instance, they regulate ungulate populations (e.g. deer, wild boars) which benefits other animal and plant species. By selecting the most vulnerable prey, such as sick individuals, wolves can also reduce the incidence of diseases like Tuberculosis and African swine fever that wild ungulates transmit to livestock.

Wolves are an integral part of Europe's natural heritage as they can improve habitats and contribute to restoring natural processes and thus our ecosystems. Their presence ensures that our ecosystems are balanced and in good condition with numerous animals and plants thriving. 

Fact 3: We already have effective tools available to protect livestock 

To avoid conflicts, preventive measures to protect livestock need to be introduced, implemented and adequately supported, as well as appropriate compensation measures.  

EU and national guideline documents, good practices, and tools are available to prevent and compensate for the economic damage caused by wolves. Good practices include the training of dogs to protect herds, education of herders, tools and technical solutions to deter wolves.

The European Union Guidelines for State Aid in the agricultural sector allow EU Member States to grant full compensation to farmers for damages caused by protected animals, such as wolves. This also makes it possible to fully reimburse the costs of investments made to prevent such damages, for example installing electric fences or acquiring guard dogs.

In addition, rural development funds in the EAFRD have the potential to support coexistence,
notably via investments and increased agro-environmental area payments for areas where the presence of large predators might prevent the delivery of environmentally beneficial grazing practices. This funding possibility is to date not fully exploited by Member States. 

Fact 4: Shooting wolves to protect livestock is ineffective and counterproductive

There is no scientific evidence that culling, including a steered hunting regime, is an effective and sustainable solution to large carnivore-related livestock conflicts. The study for the PETI committee on large carnivores concluded that “preventive measures are the most rational and effective way to decrease and prevent depredation” and that “Scientific research has shown that the culling and hunting of large carnivores is usually ineffective or even counterproductive in reducing depredations on livestock unless the level of extraction is so high as to compromise the viability and functionality of the carnivores population. Culling and hunting are also ineffective in improving the social acceptance of the presence of large carnivores.”

Also, the European Commission’s in-depth analysis highlights that hunting does not seem to reduce wolf depredations on livestock unless it is carried out with such intensity that it effectively reduces the density of wolves over large areas. Instead, the best way to reduce livestock losses is to apply effective and adapted measures to prevent wolf depredation.

Fact 5: Preventive measures are the solution to achieve coexistence

The European Commission’s in-depth analysis points out that prioritising and investing in preventive measures is the solution to achieving coexistence with wolves. While some methods to achieve that may be cost-effective and require minor adjustments, others demand significant changes in husbandry practices, therefore increased labour and possibly financial investment.

In the EU, many prevention measures have proven to be moderately or highly effective, but safeguarding free-ranging livestock remains a challenge. According to Oliveira et al. (2021), electric fences were identified as the most successful means of mitigating damages caused by large carnivores, although most non-lethal methods also demonstrated moderate efficacy.

To showcase the effectiveness of preventive measures, let’s look at Norway and Sweden. In Norway, the average number of livestock killed per large carnivore is 34, compared to 0.85 in Sweden. The major difference is that Swedish sheep are kept behind fences (often electrified) while Norwegian sheep graze freely, without protection.

Norway has the highest depredation rates in Europe, while having relatively small populations of large carnivores compared to Sweden. The measures protecting livestock against large carnivores will also safeguard them against smaller predators and theft. Additionally, heightened surveillance enables prompt responses to accidents, diseases, and parasite infections.

In Germany, data has suggested the effectiveness of preventive measures. With 3.5% more attacks across the country compared to the year before, the number of livestock killed or injured fell by 15%. Farm animal attacks mostly happen in areas with no preventive measures where wolves have returned after a considerable absence.

Fact 6: The wolf enjoys strong public support, including from the EU’s inhabitants of rural areas

The Commission’s proposal to downgrade the wolf’s protection status goes against the opinion of the EU’s inhabitants of rural areas, who have highlighted their broad support for protecting wolves and large carnivores: in a recent survey among 10,000 Europeans in 10 Member States, 68% stated that wolves should be strictly protected and 72% agreed that they have a right to co-exist. 

This is supported by the EC’s analysis in which 71% of the respondents expressed their support for maintaining wolf protection status, compared to 29% in favour of reducing its protection status.

Fact 7: Member States have ample flexibility to address potential problems with wolves 

In its in-depth analysis, the European Commission explicitly mentions that conflicts associated with the conservation of wolves cannot be addressed only or mainly through culling/lethal control. In addition, the Habitats Directive offers flexibility to Member States to derogate from strict protection and to use lethal measures under clearly defined conditions.

According to the online dashboard from the European Environment Agency, in the period 2019-2020, 285 derogations were granted for killing wolves, indicating that there is already considerable flexibility in the implementation of the legislation.

Fact 8: The impact of wolves on livestock in the EU is very small

In its in-depth analysis of the wolf populations in Europe, the European Commission concludes that the impact of wolves on livestock remains very limited on a large scale but it can be high at a local level, in specific areas. With 60 million sheep in the EU, wolf depredation results in an annual loss of 0.065% of sheep. 

Areas with continuous wolf presence experience lower depredation levels compared to regions where carnivores disappeared and then returned within the last 50 years. The frequency of livestock damage is influenced by factors such as the abundance of natural prey, landscape features, and the implementation of protective measures.


Fact 9: Wolves can bring benefits to local communities

While wolves play an important role in balancing our ecosystems, their presence can also be beneficial to local communities. 

Wolves increase wilderness attractiveness of a given natural area which in turn boosts eco-tourism in such places. Naturally, this form of tourism has to be arranged with necessary care, keeping in mind that people shouldn’t interfere with the behavioural patterns of wolves. 

In Europe, Spain has a well-established wolf-watching tourism industry. In 2012, a survey found that wolf-watching tourists made up 46% of overnight stays in rural areas in Sierra de la Culebra. On average, these tourists stayed for 2.18 days. The minimum cost for accommodation and food from these tourists could be around 440,000 euros per year, which is much more than what the area earns from wolf hunting.

Fact 10: There are numerous success stories of coexistence in Europe

More than 80 projects of the EU LIFE Programme, carried out since 1992, have demonstrated that coexistence with wolves is possible. There are numerous successful stories on the coexistence between humans and wolves in different corners of Europe. 

There are various effective preventive measures to ensure such coexistence, for instance installing different types of fences, acquiring livestock guard dogs or shepherding should be introduced and encouraged by Member States. Such successful solutions to coexistence challenges must be replicated on a large scale. 

In the video below, you can hear the testimony of a German farmer who installed preventive measures to achieve coexistence with wolves. 

Fact 11: Wolf populations are recovering but they are far from favourable status

Wolf populations are increasing, thanks to the strict protection of the species. According to the latest data from the in-depth analysis, wolves are present in all EU Member States except Ireland, Cyprus and Malta and there are breeding packs in 23 countries. The number of wolves across the EU in 2023 is estimated to be 20,300. This is a real nature conservation success story! 

However, wolf populations are as yet far from being in Favourable Conservation Status across the continent. According to the latest IUCN assessment, of the 9 transboundary wolf populations in the EU, 6 have a vulnerable or near-threatened status. In addition, the wolf is still in unfavourable-inadequate conservation status in 6 out of 7 biogeographical regions. 

Fact 12: Wolves have returned naturally across Europe 

Contrary to a common misconception, wolves have not been reintroduced to the EU but have returned naturally. Natural processes such as dispersal of new individuals, recolonization of former (historical range) and establishment of meta-populations have resulted in the growing number of wolf populations and their increased range across the continent. 

However, wolves in Finland have been occasionally translocated across the country to avoid the Swedish population becoming genetically isolated (wolves are hunted in the Reindeer Herding Area and therefore cannot pass through easily). 

Fact 13: As a top predator, it’s a wolf’s natural behaviour to kill vulnerable ungulates

Wolves, as top predators, follow their natural tendency to attack vulnerable ungulates. Unprotected and therefore vulnerable domestic livestock is their obvious target and implementing measures to protect livestock is the most effective solution to prevent such conflicts. 

Downgrading the wolf's protection status is an inadequate solution to this challenge as it doesn’t provide any practical remedy on the ground (hunting is ineffective in protecting livestock) and it doesn’t take into account the wolf’s natural behaviour patterns.
Wolves play a vital role in maintaining ecosystem balance and healthy biodiversity. They can improve habitats and contribute to restoring natural processes and thus our ecosystems.
© Staffan Wildstrand