The president of the EU’s beloved pony was attacked and killed by a wolf, prompting efforts to capture the predator.
In the early hours of September 1, 2022, a large grey wolf emerged from the forest near Beinhorn, a small village in Lower Saxony, Germany. Using his keen sense of smell, the male wolf likely detected the presence of Dolly, a chestnut pony with a distinct white marking on her face. The 30-year-old pony was kept in a pasture near stables and a farmhouse, without the protection of high-voltage electric fencing commonly used to deter wolves. This made her an easy target for the wolf, who killed her during the night. The next morning, Dolly’s body was discovered in the tall grass, leaving her owners devastated.
Unfortunately for the wolf, and potentially for the entire population of wolves in western Europe, Dolly was a beloved family pet owned by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission and one of the most influential individuals in the EU. In September of last year, a year after Dolly’s passing, von der Leyen proposed changes that were viewed by some advocates for wolves as a form of retaliation: the commission intends to decrease the legal protection for wolves.
The responsible party for Dolly’s death had already been dealt with. Through DNA evidence collected from the pony’s body, it was discovered that the wolf responsible was known as GW950m. This fully-grown male wolf leads a pack of 8-10 wolves that reside near the von der Leyen household. It seems that GW950m has developed a preference for attacking livestock. Further DNA testing on other animal carcasses has linked him to the deaths of around 70 sheep, horses, cattle, and goats. Experts suggest that younger wolves in the pack may have learned his hunting techniques. As GW950m was now considered a “problem wolf,” a permit was issued to allow hunters to legally shoot him (as per EU laws, wolves can only be killed under exceptional circumstances). This was the seventh permit granted in Lower Saxony, a state comparable in size to Denmark and boasting a population of at least 500 wolves – more than what is found in all of Scandinavia.
Despite the odds, over a year since the authorization to terminate was initially granted, GW950m continues to evade capture, living quietly on a diet primarily consisting of deer in the forests east of Hanover. The resurgence of this lone wolf may seem unlikely, but so is the revival of the species in north-western Europe. In the 19th century, wolves were largely eradicated in Germany. However, since one first returned from Poland in 2000, they have successfully reclaimed the country and now boast over 180 packs, totaling around 1,500 wolves. Their offspring have also repopulated Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Wolves are also expanding their territory from the Alps, with a population that has grown from zero in France in 1992 to 140 packs. In Spain, wolves have made a remarkable recovery from near extinction in the 1970s to a current population of over 2,000.
Wolves have quickly and effectively adapted to landscapes dominated by humans. However, people are struggling to adapt to the presence of wolves. According to von der Leyen, the concentration of wolf packs has become a significant danger to livestock and potentially even to humans. In response, the commission has proposed reducing the wolf’s protected status under the Bern Convention from “strictly protected” to “protected” in order to introduce more flexibility. This could potentially allow for hunting and population control measures across the EU. Many politicians in Europe are using the wolf as a talking point, hoping to gain support in the upcoming elections for the European parliament. It is a cost-effective way to appeal to rural voters and show support for their concerns. A German conservationist notes that wolves could be a decisive issue in the elections.
Humans have created legends, tales, and anxieties surrounding wolves since the beginning of human civilization. For those who admire wolves, the fact that the species has made a comeback after being hunted to extinction in many parts of Europe is a hopeful sign – a demonstration that nature can be restored, that humans and predators can coexist peacefully, and that reintroducing an apex predator can have positive effects on the environment. The resurgence of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, resulting in a decrease in grazing herbivores and an increase in diverse vegetation, has captured the public’s imagination (as seen in the popular YouTube video “How Wolves Change Rivers” with 44 million views). However, scientists argue that the impact of wolves has been exaggerated. On the other hand, those who dislike wolves claim that the return of this ruthless carnivore has been enthusiastically supported by urban elites who have no knowledge of rural life, prioritize animal welfare over human well-being, and cause problems for farmers, hunters, and residents of the countryside.
The reintroduction of wolves in western Europe was a result of unexpected events. Prior to their return, EU countries such as Germany advocated for the highest level of protection for this endangered species under the EU habitats directive in 1992. With the end of the cold war, many farms in eastern Europe were left abandoned, making it easier for Russian wolf populations to migrate westward. Upon reaching Germany, the wolves found shelter in abandoned military bases and were initially met with sympathy.
Kenny Kenner, a wolf specialist who gathers reports and genetic information on wolves for the Lower Saxony government and conducts educational walks about this complex and intriguing creature, believes that if wolves had reappeared 50 years ago, they would not have had a chance. This is due to the fact that our perspective on nature has significantly changed since then. We now recognize ourselves as an integral part of nature and understand our dependence on it. As a result, the return of a challenging species like the wolf became a possibility.
I accompanied Kenny and Barbara Kenner on one of their weekly walks in Göhrde forest, located 75 miles north of where Dolly was killed, in search of wolves. Despite the wolf’s symbolic significance in the wild, it is thriving in landscapes dominated by humans, such as the intensively farmed countryside and even suburban areas in eastern Germany, where the population density exceeds that of Newcastle. Wolf packs can also be found living near cities like Turin in northern Italy and Brașov in Romania. While this 75 sq km forest is not heavily populated, it serves as the central territory for a local wolf pack that covers approximately 300 sq km. Each pack typically consists of around 10 members, including a mother and father, their yearlings (young wolves from the previous year’s litter), and their pups.
Kenner is knowledgeable about this group due to his monitoring of their footprints and droppings, as well as his placement of camera traps throughout the area. The female, GW432f, has a tawny coat and is surprisingly larger than her male partner, GW1559m, who is a pioneering male. Kenner has given him the name Alpino because he was one of the first wolves from the Alpine sub-population to travel over 600 miles to join the growing German subpopulation. Alpino settled in this area after the resident male was illegally shot. When Alpino joined the pack, he not only mated with GW432f but also her daughter, resulting in a litter of 15 pups in 2022, which is more than the standard single litter. This serves as a powerful example for Kenner of why shooting wolves is not an effective method of population control. Disrupting a pack can actually lead to an increase in wolf numbers.
Kenner notices wild boar tracks on the forest trail, about 20 minutes away from the closest road. He measures the pad with a ruler and finds it to be 9cm, which is large enough to possibly belong to a wolf. Kenner explains that wolves often travel and use human-made paths and roads when they are not busy. To track wolves, he sets up camera traps at intersections where they leave their scent by urinating, marking their territory.
At the start of Kenner’s walks, there was a sense of thrill around the perceived danger of encountering a wolf. People were hesitant to take their dogs for a walk in the forest. However, over time, Kenner notes that this perception has shifted. He believes we should not feel afraid, but rather we should feel privileged to witness these animals. Nevertheless, he does not recommend getting too close to them.
The footprints are most likely left by wolves as they hunt for wild boar during the early morning hours. According to Kenner, they have a keen sense of time, space, and health. It’s crucial to understand that humans are not their prey. If we were, we would need a weapon for protection.
The Kenners are concerned about a perceived conflict between populist and right-wing politicians regarding the wolf. Conservationists find von der Leyen’s remarks about potential danger to humans to be provocative. Despite the wolf’s presence in Germany for 23 years, there have been no recorded instances of them exhibiting aggression towards humans; wild boar pose a more significant threat. In modern times, there have been no reported cases of wolf attacks on people in western Russia; historical incidents occurred when children were responsible for herding animals in the forest. Kenner states that the risk to children in our society is minimal. While wolves may sometimes attack trained hunting dogs in Finnish forests, they rarely harm pets. Additionally, wolves tend to avoid contact with humans. Kenner shares footage from his camera traps, where a wolf is seen sniffing his tracks and quickly moving away. Kenner explains that wolves are not shy but cautious, being predators who must take risks but cannot learn from being hunted.
Kenner contends that Von der Leyen is leveraging her authority to promote the hunting of wolves based on her own opinions and past encounters. He believes this is an abuse of power not limited to just her, as many other politicians in Lower Saxony are also pushing for this policy change without factual evidence.
Two hours to the south, lies the headquarters of Landesjägerschaft Niedersachsen on one of the most affluent streets in Hanover. The association is responsible for monitoring wolves in Lower Saxony and benefits from its 58,000 vigilant members who serve as a valuable and cost-free resource for detecting these animals. According to Raoul Reding, the biologist in charge of meticulously tracking population data, this is an unprecedented phenomenon: “No other place in the world has seen such large carnivores settling in densely populated human areas like we have here in Germany.”
According to Reding, the wolf has flourished due to an abundance of deer and its ability to adapt. The survival rate of its offspring is high and young wolves are capable of traveling up to 1,250 miles to establish new territories. In contrast, other European predators, like the lynx, tend to stick to forested areas and do not cover such long distances. Despite the existence of 180 wolf packs in Germany, there is still a large portion of southern Germany that has yet to be repopulated; research indicates that the country could potentially support 700-1,400 packs.
People have been less quick to change, especially those who raise livestock. In the city, there is a building called Land Volk Haus where the Lower Saxony farmers’ union is based. The vice-president, Jörn Ehlers, gives me two stickers. One shows a scary wolf with a red line over its mouth, holding a sheep in its mouth. The other says: IF YOU DON’T SUPPORT FARMING, THEN STOP EATING. THIS WILL SOLVE THE PROBLEM!
Ehlers expresses concern for the noise and attention surrounding the issue, stating that time is of the essence. The problem continues to escalate as wolves, being faster than politicians, have been inhabiting Lower Saxony since 2011 and caused the deaths of approximately 1,000 farm animals last year. While some damage from wolves is inevitable, Ehlers believes that the current situation is excessive and suggests adopting the “Swedish solution”. Despite potential conflicts with EU laws protecting wolves, Sweden maintains a significantly lower wolf population compared to Germany. Ehlers reveals that only around 300 adult wolves are allowed in the entire country and any exceeding number will be eliminated through shooting.
Sweden and Finland both have designated areas in the northern regions where wolves are not allowed: if any wolves enter these zones where traditional reindeer herding takes place, they are killed. Ehlers suggests that Germany should also have a similar wolf-free zone along the pastures near its North Sea coast, where cattle and sheep graze on unfenced dykes. According to Ehlers, these animals are crucial for flood protection as they help prevent trees from growing on the dykes. He also argues that if society wants to continue raising farm animals in an ethical and humane manner, it must address the issue of wolves.
Kenny and Barbara Kenner, along with other German conservationists, believe that implementing fences to protect livestock will effectively address conflicts with wolves and ease growing public anger. According to Kenny, the protection of livestock will help reduce the intense emotions surrounding the issue. Barbara adds that if someone were to report a fox killing their hens to the mayor, the response would likely be to take better care of the hens rather than expecting the fox not to attack. The approach to dealing with wolves should not be as passive as hoping they won’t harm the sheep.
The Kenners recently traveled to northern Italy and met with farmers who have not eradicated wolves from the area. There is a higher level of tolerance for these predators in this region. In areas with difficult terrain that cannot be enclosed, traditional shepherding practices must be implemented or guard dogs are used to prevent wolf attacks on livestock. Barbara notes that the locals are surprised by the German practice of feeding wolves with sheep.
In Germany, not all farmers are opposed to the presence of wolves. Thomas Rebre and his partner, who work as shepherds, care for 300 sheep and 30 goats in the forests of north-east Saxony. According to Rebre, living in Germany often feels like everyday is Halloween due to the wolf population. However, he believes that it is their responsibility to protect their livestock and assert that the wolf cannot claim it as their own. Despite the strong emotions and reactions towards wolves, Rebre acknowledges that they are simply acting according to their nature and are neither inherently good nor evil.
Rebre has recently implemented electric net fencing, with a voltage of 7,000 volts, in response to the arrival of wolves. Although the fence is not very tall, only measuring between 1.05-1.2 metres, it is effective in deterring wolves from entering the enclosure. However, wolves are known to dig under fencing, so Rebre has installed posts every 2 metres to ensure the fence remains tight to the ground. To protect his sheep from potential attacks, Rebre moves them and the fencing daily. This practice has also allowed him to receive payments for “conservation grazing”. While he did receive financial support from the Lower Saxony government for his fencing, he believes there should be more funding available for farmers impacted by wolves. Erecting and maintaining the fencing adds an additional two hours of work to his daily routine.
During the fall season, Rebre led his sheep to graze in the central area of Göhrde forest as part of a conservation effort. Kenny Kenner expressed concern about the potential threat of wolves and set up 20 camera traps around the electric fence put up by the shepherd. One night, the camera captured footage of a male wolf approaching the fence to observe the sheep. After two minutes, the wolf left without causing any harm to Rebre’s sheep.
According to Rebre, wolves have a strong fear of electricity. In the past 15 years, he has only lost one animal, a goat, to a wolf. However, the farmers’ union believes that fences alone will not solve the issue. They estimate that it would be too expensive, costing €2.2bn in total, to fence all livestock in Lower Saxony against wolves. Conservationists argue that it is only necessary to fence in sheep, calves, and foals as wolves are unlikely to attack adult cows and horses. Ehlers, a farmer, acknowledges the need for fences but also believes that farmers should have the right to kill problem wolves in order to maintain a stable population and prevent the issue from growing every year.
The search for GW950m, the opponent of von der Leyen, has not been successful thus far. In Lower Saxony, if DNA evidence confirms that the same wolf has attacked livestock multiple times, a permit can be obtained to allow hunters to eliminate that “problem” wolf. However, this term is disliked by experts such as Kenny and Barbara, who believe that wolves are simply living their natural lives and should not be considered problems for human beings. The process of obtaining a permit is slow and can be challenged legally. Raoul Reding from the hunters’ association expresses frustration with the bureaucratic system, stating that it is not conducive to effective wolf management.
The irony is that the request for permission to eliminate the GW950m was made the day before it caused the death of Dolly, a pony, due to previous attacks on livestock. Although the license was initially granted in October 2022, it has since been rescinded and reinstated multiple times due to legal challenges from pro-wolf organizations. A new permit was granted in October 2023, but was once again halted by the courts.
In the previous autumn, hunters believed they had successfully captured their target when they shot a fully grown wolf near Beinhorn. However, it later turned out to be the female mate of the wolf they were actually seeking. Since the return of wolves, permits have been granted to eliminate seven “problem” animals in Lower Saxony. However, targeting the “correct” wolf is not as easy as it seems. According to Reding, it is extremely challenging to determine the age and sex of the animal from a distance of over 100 meters, in poor lighting conditions, and with the wolf’s thick winter coat. So far, seven wolves have been killed due to significant livestock attacks, but none of them have been the intended “right” wolf responsible for the incidents.
According to Reding, a spokesperson for the association, many of the 58,000 members are not interested in hunting wolves. This is due to the difficulties in finding and hunting them, as well as the preference for traditional deer hunting. In cases where wolves are hunted, it is usually unintentional and considered a side effect. Additionally, pro-wolf activists have been causing problems for hunters by sabotaging hunts and damaging equipment. For example, they have placed nails on forest paths to puncture tires and even damaged the “high seats” used by hunters in forests. In retaliation, an illegally killed wolf was left on the road outside a nature protection organization’s office in Lower Saxony, and conservationists have reported having their tires slashed as well.
Nabu acknowledges that Germany should simplify the procedure for eliminating problematic wolves, a stance that is now endorsed by Steffi Lemke, Germany’s federal environment minister and co-founder of the Green party. Marie Neuwald of Nabu agrees that it shouldn’t take months of bureaucratic red tape to determine if a wolf should be killed. However, Neuwald advocates for more transparency in order to prove that a “problem” wolf truly poses a threat to livestock.
Many individuals who engage in hunting and farming desire to take further action. Reding suggests a “pragmatic solution” to the challenge of eliminating a single wolf could be to eliminate the entire pack. However, Kenny Kenner argues that shooting wolves to protect livestock “will not be effective. Wolves will not learn to avoid eating sheep by being shot.” A study conducted over the course of 25 years in three US states showed that livestock losses actually increased after wolf culls because packs were separated, new pairs formed, and the wolves responded by reproducing more. In France, where 19% of the population is killed each year, sheep killings have continued to rise from 10,000 to 15,000 annually.
The focus of discussions about wolves often revolves around challenges, but what about the positive outcomes? According to a study conducted in Germany, deer gained an average of 1.5kg in weight after the reintroduction of wolves. Kenner states, “Hunters should be pleased with this as they now have an additional 1.5kg of meat per shot.” He also highlights that the prey is now stronger and healthier, preventing the spread of diseases that could potentially affect humans. Additionally, he believes that forests are now thriving with more diversity as there are fewer deer consuming plants.
Marie Neuwald of Nabu is cautious not to exaggerate the advantages of wolves. She believes it would be dishonest to claim that wolves can completely restore our ecosystems or forests. As top predators in a natural environment, wolves help control the population of their prey. However, in Germany, the landscape is more cultural rather than natural, and wolves are not the key players in this puzzle. The presence of wolves is not expected to drastically decrease the number of deer, as there is still an abundant food supply for them.
The Kenners claim that American acquaintances find it amusing that Germans are worried about wolves, even though North Americans coexist with five large mammalian predators (wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears, black bears, coyotes). According to Kenner, the issue in Germany is that people have a highly emotional perspective on the matter. Despite the usual extremes seen on social media, I am impressed by the moderate attitudes on both sides of the debate in Germany. Frank Fass, a former engineer in the field of aeronautics who established the Wolf Center in 2010 to educate Germans about wolves, believes that the wolf population in Germany will continue to grow and eventually reach a stable enough level to allow for an annual cull. Fass explains that many farmers argue that they have gone without wolves for hundreds of years in Germany and do not need them. He understands their point of view, but also recognizes that the wolf is a creature of the universe, just like birds, cows, and horses. He believes that coexisting with wolves is possible, but it will not be an easy journey.
Travel to Burgdorf, a charming small town nestled among fields and forests where GW950m roams freely. According to resident Lorenz Reinhard, “I often go for walks in the surrounding woods of Burgdorf. The news is always talking about wolves, but I haven’t spotted any yet.” Is it possible for humans and wolves to coexist? “The hunters can’t eliminate them entirely,” he explains. “There are always two perspectives – even when it comes to wolves.”
Is it possible for GW950m to avoid being caught? At the location where Dolly was killed, horses are still seen grazing freely in Ursula von der Leyen’s fields, with only a simple electric fence as protection. There is no sign of GW950m in the surrounding woods. The most frightening presence in this area is a police officer carrying a weapon, assigned to guard the country residence of the president of the European Commission.