Our changing relationship with one of Europe’s apex predators

The legend

You close your eyes and picture a wolf. Your mind will probably conjure up a snarling canine with pointed ears, wide eyes and sharp, white teeth. This is the image that forms in early childhood, reinforced by stories and folklore. We all know Aesop’s cautionary fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and tales like Little Red Riding Hood. The wolves in these stories are the embodiment of evil. Beware the big, bad wolf!

However, this hasn’t always been case. For the Romans the the wolf was a symbol of intelligence, loyalty and generosity. In the legend of the founding of Rome, the lupa (female wolf) is revered for rescuing and caring for Romulus and Remus. Even today, traces of this benevolent attitude towards the species may be found in the Italian language. The phrase “In bocca al lupo” (literally, ‘in the mouth of the wolf’) is commonly used to wish someone good luck. Although the origins are disputed, some believe it implies that there is no safer place than the protective mouth of the wolf.

The species

What’s certain is that, while few of us get the chance to see them in the wild, wolves are a prominent cultural figure in Europe and beyond. European wolves, including the Iberian Wolf and the Apennine Wolf, belong to the species Canis lupus, commonly known as the Grey Wolf. There are an estimated 16,000-18,000 wolves in Europe, from Scandinavia to Turkey. They tend to form packs of 2-7 animals and can occupy a territory of up to 500 square km. To cover all that ground, wolves need to eat on average 2-6 kg of meat a day, but are capable of eating up to 10 kg in a single meal. To put that into perspective, an adult male normally weighs 30-50 kg.

Wolf conservation

The Grey Wolf is an apex predator – it has no natural predators itself – but it continues to be threatened by the loss of habitat and conflict with human activity. The interests of livestock farming and hunting, combined with lasting public fear, all ensure that controversy is never far away. Attacks on livestock is a very real issue, but attacks on humans in Europe are few and far between.

The argument for the protection, even reintroduction, of wolves remains a particularly strong one. As apex predators, their place is at the top of the food chain. Such animals are key to maintaining a healthy ecosystem and their absence can have a catastrophic impact on the environment, as explained in this video narrated by George Monbiot:

Thanks to legal protection and conservation measures, wolves are making a comeback in many European countries. This has been aided by increased environmental awareness. For example, last year, pressure from environmental groups led to the Norwegian government scaling down plans to cull two thirds of the country’s wolf population. Efforts are also being made across Europe to educate and support farmers, helping them to protect wolves, as well as their livestock.

For more information on wolf conservation projects, visit The Wolves and Humans Foundation website.