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We need to relearn how to deal with wolves

Published: 27th May 2019 Last updated: 11th March 2021

Now that wolves have begun to resettle in the Netherlands, we need to take action, both to protect wolves as a species and to prevent cattle from being attacked by them. These are the conclusions of an international research team which includes Arie Trouwborst, legal scholar at the Tilburg Law School. According to the researchers on the team, using fencing to keep wolves out, influencing mutual contact between humans and wolves, and making sure there is enough wild game as prey for wolves offers the best combination for both humans and wolves.

More and more wolves are spotted in the Netherlands. There were at least ten spotted here last year, and a number of these were in the process of settling here permanently. This means wolves are back in this country. Up until a century and a half ago, wolves were a species occurring naturally in the Netherlands, but eventually they were hunted to extinction. Developments in the Netherlands are a recent chapter in the “comeback of wolves”, which has been going on in Western Europe for quite a while now.

According to the researchers, the strategies for dealing with the return of wolves tend to be predominantly reactive. If wolves attack cattle or are spotted near humans, the initial reaction is to shoot them. Compensating cattle farmers for livestock lost does not look like a sound long-term solution.

Future-proof wolf policy

wolf protection methods

To arrive at a future-proof wolf policy in Western Europe, the researchers systematically list the pros and cons of four possible strategies that theoretically make it possible for wolves and humans to live together in the modern, human-dominated Western-European landscape:

(1) control and management of the wolf population by shooting them; (2) strict protection of wolves combined with compensation for damages; (3) keeping wolves and humans strictly separated by putting up large-scale fencing, and (4) keeping wolves and humans separated in a less stringent fashion by influencing the behavior of both. (llustration: Tomasz Samojlik)

No population management or wolf-free zones

The research team mapped out the expected consequences of each scenario in socio-economic terms, their projected effects on nature itself, and how each of these measures fitted in with the legal frameworks of European nature conservation legislation.

Each scenario has its own pros and cons. For instance, reducing the size of the wolf population by shooting them may seem like an easy solution, but it often does not solve the problem of cattle predation and may even be counter-productive there.

Besides this, wolf population reduction by shooting them is at odds with European legislation, particularly in the Netherlands, which is still a long way removed from having a healthy wolf population. Another measure that can be ruled out simply because it is legally unacceptable is that of setting up wolf-free zones.

Put deer on the menu rather than sheep

The researchers recommend continuing on the road taken by protecting cattle through preventive measures, such as putting up fencing, combined with financial compensation for loss of livestock for cattle farmers in areas where wolves occur only sporadically. This policy is particularly effective if the population of prey animals (such as red- and roe deer) is at the desired level. If enough wild game is available, wolves will be less likely to attack cattle.

Mutual respect

Finally, so the researchers observe, there is a lot to be won by fostering or maintaining mutual respect on both sides. For this, it is important that people’s image of wolves be a nuanced one: the return to our country of this animal is of great ecological value and the danger to humans is very small, but they are big predators and they need to be approached with appropriate behavior – which most certainly includes not feeding them. If wolves and humans stay out of each other’s way, the chances of trouble are slightest.


The research project is a collaboration between scientists of the Polish Mammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences and the universities of Utrecht, Groningen, Tilburg, Freiburg (Germany), the Swedish SLU agricultural university, and the Nelson Mandela University of South Africa.

Dries Kuijper, Marcin Churski, Arie Trouwborst, Marco Heurich, Chris Smit, Graham I.H. Kerley, Joris P. G. M. Cromsigt, Keep the wolf from the door: how to conserve wolves in Europe’s human-dominated landscapes? Biological Conservation 2019.