The running of the wolves
2022/05/24 | By L.T. Hitchcock | Photo by Federico Di Dio Photography
“The wolves are running again.” So said John Masefield in his Christmas classic The Box of Delights. Now environmentalists and animal lovers alike are opening their own box of delights with the reintegration of wolves to the wilds of the Netherlands.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the nearest the Dutch get to a wild animal is the famous coat of arms lion, arguably made more famous by the badge that adorns the national football team’s shirt, and always kissed with such hope and vigour before every penalty shoot-out (sorry Dutch readers) … Indeed, one may assume that animals of a more exotic nature are alien to the lowlands of the Netherlands, lands renowned, albeit in some regions unfairly, for their uniformity of landscape. But alien they are not. Scottish Highlanders (cows) roam casually around the dunes between Scheveningen and Kijkduin, gazing serenely at the nonplussed cyclists who speed by. European bison graze contentedly in the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, and many of the long stretches of Dutch dunes are replete with bats, foxes, and sand lizards. We even have our own venomous snake, the viper, and a poisonous spider or two thrown in for good measure. In actual fact, over 800 different species of animal are native to the Netherlands, from the Atlantic puffin to the white stork.
And now, after being estranged for 150 years, the wolf is returning across the Dutch borders. But to what fanfare? A long-time staple villain of our imaginations, horror movies on remote moors, cautionary tales fuelled by Disney or Brother’s Grimm depictions, the wolf has oft been much maligned, consistently used as a menacing metaphor to teach us crude moral lessons of what could happen if we did not follow the right path or tell the truth. Neil Jordan’s 1984 chilling gothic film The Company of Wolves is, by itself, enough to make anybody wish for company of a far less toothy variety.
Judging a cover by its book
But is the wolf a misunderstood creature? A dark, noble, and alluring anti-hero of the wild? For some, the wolf is indeed a thing of beauty and something to be welcomed and cultivated back into the natural habitat. In its study of the wolf, Wageningen Environmental Research (WENR) suggest that “Wolves are highly intelligent animals, each with their own character. In that sense they are comparable to the dogs we keep as pets: they are individuals.”
Others go further. Wolven in Nederland, an environmental non-profit that has been preparing for the wolf’s return for years, has a simple mission: “a conflict-free co-existence with wolves.” They seek to debunk the harmful stereotypes of past storytelling, and separate myth from fact with objective information sharing. They see wolves as an asset to the Dutch countryside, a predator that plays a key part “in keeping prey population healthy’’. By liaising with farmers, hunters, government, the media, and other key stakeholders, they hope to facilitate such co-existence through encouraging a safe reintegration of wolves into the Dutch wildlife, stemming in no small part from well-informed dialogue on wolves in the wild. This would focus on the good and bad effects, as well as promoting a compensation scheme for any losses that do ultimately occur.
But what about the children? It didn’t end so well for Little Red Riding Hood (depending on which version you read). But fear not. Wolves have long since learned through a bitter evolutionary struggle that humankind is more foe than friend and knows to leave well enough alone. Only in the very rarest of cases has this truth ever been dispelled. According to wolf.org, there have only been 12 fatal attacks recorded in this century thus far across the entire world. Many sources claim that approximately 150 people are killed each year by falling coconuts, therefore, wolves’ threat level to humans, while being above zero, is “far too low to calculate.” This does not mean, however, that the return of wolves is not without its issues.
De Hoge danger
If such a defence sounds a tad protective for an apex predator, it should be noted that wolves are, in fact, an endangered species. Such groups as Wolven in Nederland feel that having emigrated naturally to the Netherlands, they should be treated with the according protection. Yet fears, both real and imagined, which led to the mass culling of wolves in certain parts of the world over previous centuries, are not culled so easily themselves. Hence–while slowly but surely, the resilient and curious beast finds its footing again in Northern Europe–old fears return to the fore.
In De Hoge Veluwe National Park alone, one may encounter red deer, roe deer and wild boar, to name but a few… But since the wolf’s arrival back in the park in 2021, the alpha hunter has been confirming its position at the top of the food chain, killing many mouflons, deer, and boar.
‘But it’s the circle of life,’ I hear you cry. ‘Have you not seen The Lion King’? But Simba and co. were not nefariously snuck into the Pride Lands (main location of The Lion King franchise), something that has been suggested of the wolves now in residence at De Hoge Veluwe National Park. The park has cause to believe that the wolves were introduced unnaturally, and while they refrain from hunting them, it is difficult to view them in this context as anything other than unwelcome guests. Concerns continue as to the effect the wolves’ hunting has on the fragile ecosystem of the environment, which has been partially subverted by attacks on high-quality grazing animals, putting added pressure on the complex biodiversity of the ecosystem. Aside from this, on a more humane level, wolf kills can be somewhat indiscriminate in nature meaning that animals can be left to suffer.
Striking a balance
Another valid and often voiced concern is that of the effect on farmers’ livestock and its subsequent way of living. In France, for example, ever since entering from Italy back in the 1990s, wolf attacks on livestock continue to rise in conjunction with the increase in packs. It is therefore the difficult task of groups like Wolven in Nederland, to try and mitigate these very real concerns against a desire for wolves to be allowed to live by their natural instincts, and in whichever hunting ground they may migrate to.
Wolves are not the first animals to return to this part of Europe: otters and beavers have returned to the local wilds after previously being hunted to extinction; the black-bellied hamster is another, as well as the aforementioned white stork. There is also a welcome return to other European countries of “big cats,” such as the Eurasian and Iberian lynx. Accommodating such changes and understanding their affects is complex. The Dutch know more than most about the fine balances of nature, having waged a war and a love affair with the sea for centuries. Coping with and yet benefitting from the perils and possibilities of its geographical birth-right has led to innovation and progress, all based around striking a delicate balance with a power that can only be controlled within reason.
Such balances are an important part of maintaining the equilibrium of a biodiverse landscape, with much thought given to the impact on flora and fauna that reintegrated animals may cause. But environmental impact is no longer restricted to the domain of the environmentalists and researchers; it is now very much in the mainstreams of society. Just take a look at the amount of insect hotels that abound, now a staple for any company that adjusts its mission statement to shoehorn the word ‘sustainability’ into it, helping us forget about their outrageous profits because they are also saving the bees. Humans and the environment struggle evermore to live in accord, but the more informed we are, the more prepared we are for challenges.
So now the box is open to the delight of some and the consternation of others. Indeed, the wolves are running again but only time will tell how far they will run. In the meantime, however, take care to look up occasionally just to be sure you are not standing under a coconut tree.
About the author
L.T. Hitchcock has been in the Netherlands for over a decade and is passionate about writing and literature. He lives in The Hague with his partner and daughters and loves to enjoy Scheveningen beach life.
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