New Flanders’ wolves cubs and renewed motivation to find solutions to protect livestock and benefit sheep-wolf coexistence!

The Flemish Nature and Forest agency, recently captured important pictures of Noëlla, a she-wolf established with the male August in Limburg, informs De Morgen last Tuesday. From her suddenly finer belly, it seems that she gave birth to cubs this year again!

 This is great news for this protected species and famous Flanders’ wolf pair. It comes as another confirmation of the growing population trend occurring in (western) Europe for the past few years. Noëlla’s cubs arrive at a critical time in the present European wolf history, as Belgium appears to become the meeting point of the eastern European (Poland, Germany, The Netherlands) and the Italian-Alps-French wolf population (found thanks to the international cooperation called CEwolf). We suspect that such fusion of the two populations separated for about a century will favour genetic diversity, which is believed to translate in healthier wolf populations, more resilient to environmental changes.

This reproduction is also the encouraging sign that this young pack finds, in its environment, enough shelter and prey to sustain itself! As top predators, wolves exert a “top-down” pressure. They prey on large herbivories, we assume weak ones in priority, and keep them constantly moving. This, in turn, reduces the browsing or grazing pressure, should improve the health of the herbivores’ population, it can favour scavenger species and can compete with meso-predator species like foxes. Those interactions are the fascinations of ecologists, conservationists, naturalists…

A healthy predator population and its effects on the ecosystem implies consequences on human activities as well. For example, on the one hand, it can be beneficial for the forest sector, for the wildlife watching tourism sector, and perhaps, for nature visitors in general (it would be interesting to see, for example, if wolves, by influencing wild ungulates, influence tick population!). On the other hand, wolves are considered as competitors by some hunters and they can become a serious threat to livestock famers’ activity and a great source of stress. To address this last point, the government of Flanders and Wallonia and NGOs provide guidelines on fencing practices and encourage its use as well as the use of night enclosure. Compensations for livestock preyed on by wolves also exist when protection was unsuccessful. Indeed, wolves sometimes prey on livestock, with potential dramatic consequences in case of surplus killing events; that is, when wolves, like foxes entering a hens house, kill many animals in one attack (rather as storage for future consumption or as a predator’s innate reflex,  it is not yet well understood). The EU clearly recognizes the importance of livestock farming as well as the need to make room for wildlife, and therefore advocates for the coexistence of the two… Fencing can be very efficient for protecting livestock, thus favouring this coexistence, but it requires careful maintenance and, like other preventive measures and compensation measures, it can become a very costly solution. Fences are not always technically feasible or welcomed: protected areas, using livestock herding as sustainable management practice, do not welcome fencing that would further fragment the habitat. Also, compensation schemes do not address farmer’s psychological stress.

With the financial support of FWO and in response to Flanders’ parliament (and EU governments in general) demand for alternative livestock preventive measures, I therefore dedicate my PhD study in the search and testing of new non-lethal approaches that would be easier, cheaper, and more socially acceptable to implement. So, in a way, ease the welcoming of the new wolf generations coming. I will design and test some prototypes this summer and try them on sheep flocks in the coming years with volunteering farmers affected by wolf predation. My objective: punishing the predation-on-sheep behaviour using chili pepper “armours” or disgusting wild wolves from eating sheep using conditioned food aversion principles, both aiming at creating a learned, long-term, avoidance!

Until we find solutions, the little cubs will stay in the safety of their den for few more months and should come out mid-summer to meeting points where their parents will bring them food. It is a moment of strong cohesion for the wolf pack that, as social mammals too, we, humankind, like to identify with. But it is also a moment when the “curious and cute fluffy cubs” need to be left alone to avoid the appearance of problematic bold behaviours later in their life! The young wolves should join their parents for hunting in the late summer/autumn. This early autumn period usually corresponds to a peak in the wolf population with many mouths to feed and youngsters to train. It is also a time when older subordinate wolves travel in search of new territories, hence, a critical time for farmers requiring particular attention to sheep protection. For the wolf cubs, usually 3 to 7 per birth, it is also a critical time: only few, if any, will survive the first year because of lack of food,  car collisions, human persecutions, aggression from other wolves or diseases… All the more reason to find measures to sustainably protect sheep and, doing so provide the wolf a socially welcoming environment.

Be discreet and attentive, perhaps you will have the chance to get a glance at this shy and elusive species soon!

Matthieu (matthieu.chastel@uantwerpen.be)

Co-supervised by Joachim Mergeay (INBO) and Herwig Leirs (Uantwerpen)