Jan Gouwy shows us how to track wolves.
The researcher from the Flemish Institute for Nature and Forest Research (INBO) leads us on a dirt road in the eastern Belgian province of Limburg.
It doesn’t take long before he spots a wolf print that most of us would never notice. The front paw mark, slightly pressed into the mud, is probably only a few days old.
For the first time in more than 100 years, a small number of these predators have settled here.
Wolves were once widely hunted in Europe. Local folklore has it that the last wolf in Belgium was shot by the nation’s king, Leopold II, before their recent return in the 1890s.
Estimates vary, but it is thought that there are currently around 15 to 20 wolves in the country, with one pack in Flanders and another in southern Wallonia, as well as a newly introduced pair.
The numbers are much higher, for example, in neighboring France and Germany, where hundreds of the predators are believed to live. The British government has now ruled out the reintroduction of wolves.
It’s part of a broader expansion in Europe that’s causing alarm in some communities while being welcomed by conservationists.
But the resurgence of this animal, while not due to just one factor, is certainly not a simple act of nature.
“The reason why they are back is mainly for legal protection,” says Jan.
The protection of wolves was introduced by the Berne Convention and subsequent EU Habitats Directive of 1992. This prohibited the intentional capture or killing of a wolf, with some exceptions.
“A lot has happened in Europe since the early 1990s, and wolves really started to spread across the continent,” explains Jan.
A Europe-wide assessment in September 2022 said that “after a sharp drop in the first half of the 20th of the order of 19,000”.
Jan spots the remains of wolf droppings, which today mainly consist of the hair of his prey after rains.
Dietary analysis in the area has shown that the wolves mainly eat deer and wild boar.
But about 15% of their diet consists of livestock. Local sheep farmer Johan Schouteden knows this very well.
“The wolf is always on our minds,” he tells me as we stand in a light drizzle in a field where his sheep graze, fenced in by an electric fence.
“We can use more wires, use more sticks. There is no such thing as a wolf-proof fence. The wolf is so clever, it will run over any fence.”
Dozens of his sheep have been killed since wolves first appeared in this part of Belgium in 2018.
The situation has sparked protests in recent years, with 3,000 locals joining a demonstration in 2021.
Johan has photos of his dead cattle, but many of them are too graphic to publish.
There is compensation for lost animals and money for electric fences, but Johan says this doesn’t cover actual costs.
“I want to live with the wolf,” he says. “When we get paid for all the extra work and all the extra work that we have to do.”
Others are calling for more radical countermeasures, with some EU lawmakers recently voting to downgrade the wolf’s protected status.
It was a non-binding resolution, but supporters argue that the population must not grow without stronger controls.
In Sweden, 57 wolves were shot in a government-sanctioned cull between January and February. Opponents have questioned the legality of the culling.
The issue also gained renewed attention when Dolly, a pony owned by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, was killed by a wolf in Germany last year.
The wolf – whose official name is GW950m – has now been cleared for execution because it has been linked to repeated attacks. An assessment of the overall situation by the Commission will probably not result in the Habitats Directive of 1992 being taken up again, but rather existing flexibilities will be explored.
Back on track in Belgium with Jan Gouwy, he says that after over a century without wolves, it’s not surprising that their return has sparked some “panic”.
“People have to adjust their behavior. They have to build solid fences. If they do that, it’s entirely possible to live with wolves.”
But, I ask Jan, what is actually positive about the resurgence of wolves in Europe?
He says the predators help suppress disease levels because they prey on the sick and young – and hits back with his own question.
“You have to ask whether everything has to have a positive effect on our image of humanity,” he says.
“Perhaps some animals simply have a right to exist, and not just because we find them useful.”
We don’t see wolves during our walk in Limburg, but you can spot the signs with the help of an experienced eye.
These pawprints mark the quiet return of this predator and the beginning of a renewed human encounter with nature.