Horses to the wolves, wolves to the horses

October 3, 2011

In late August and in the beginning of September people in The Netherlands and  Belgium welcomed the first wolves in their countries since more than 100 years! Two countries with rapidly increasing numbers of wild herbivores in their natural areas. During the same period wild horses from The Netherlands were released in Latvia and Bulgaria, countries rich in wolves. Is this a coincidence?

Wolves to the horses

Wolves went extinct in most Western European countries during the last 200 years. The last wolf in The Netherland was shot in 1881, in Belgium in 1886 and the last one in Germany was killed in 1904. But wolves are making a comeback. Wolves already returned to Sweden, France and large parts of Spain and Portugal. Populations in most Eastern European countries are increasing and spreading.

Wolves from the Polish population reached Germany in the nineties and established a first reproducing pack in 2000. In 2011 there are at least 12 packs and 8 regions with solitary wolves. Every year young wolves are spreading westwards and it was expected that wolf would enter the Netherlands somewhere sometime.

Wolves were eradicated in 1927 in France, but returned around 1993. Animals from the Italian population entered the French Alps and spread to the west- and as far north up into the Vosges Mountains. France today has more than 200 wolves and at least 20 packs.

Because of the increase of wolves in Europe and their known long journeys they were expected to enter the Low Countries. The first wolf was seen and photographed in The Netherlands by several different people. The Belgian wolf was filmed by a TV program on the hunt for lynxes…

Wildlife specialists think wolves could well live in Dutch and Belgian nature. In both countries numbers of wild boar, red deer, roe deer and geese are higher than they have been in the last 500 years! And nowadays wild or semi-wild horses and cattle are living in many places. The natural and the original food for returning wolves!

Horses to the wolves

In many of the more or less wild regions of Eastern Europe wolves survived. But their numbers are quite low, which might be a result of the low number of herbivores there, apart from the heavy hunting pressure. Wild horse, aurochs and European bison were eradicated and even red deer, elk, chamois and beaver became locally extinct, or are still there, but in low numbers. The latter is a result of hunting because of alleged damage to forests – even in natural forests! – bad hunting management or poaching.

In many places in southern and eastern Europe land is becoming abandoned, with livestock disappearing and still without much wildlife. The best hunting grounds for the wolves, but also for lynx and brown bears are getting overgrown. Healthy numbers of wild large herbivores, including wild horse and aurochs could stop this process. And large numbers of wild herbivores will also become food for wolves and other carnivores and as a natural source of food also for scavengers like vultures and eagles.

In September wild horses were set free in the Bulgarian Eastern Rhodopi mountains and in the Estonian Sooma National Park. They are there to do the job they used to be doing, long before farming animals were even thought of: graze and graze and browse. Together with red deer and Balkan chamois in Bulgaria; and with beaver, semi-wild cattle and elk in Estonia the natural process of grazing might be restored and take these areas one step closer to a more true wilderness.

Western Europe, with its growing numbers of wild herbivores, is waiting for more of the wild carnivores. Eastern Europe, still in the possession of carnivore populations, is in great need for more wild herbivores. So stimulating the come-back of carnivores to the West and bringing back herbivores to the East are part of the same movement: restoring complete ecosystems all over Europe. Rewilding Europe can give a start. Nature will do the rest, as the wolves have already shown.

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