The wolves are coming
Wolves will reappear in the Netherlands within the next few years. This will not happen through a difficult reintroduction programme or in a special reservation, but will occur naturally.
The country is ready for it, there is more than sufficient prey and the laws of nature dictate that if a vacuum occurs, it will be filled.
Earlier this week, the Swedish government granted permission to hunt and kill 25 wolves. That does not appear to be a large number, but given that the wolf population is estimated to number 210, it is actually a great many. The public responded enthusiastically to the Swedish government's announcement and because some 11,000 Swedes were granted a licence to hunt the wolves, and the result was fairly easy to predict: almost all 25 wolves have been shot and killed.
Ecologist Roeland Vermeulen is allied to the Free Nature Association and one of the people behind the Wolves in the Netherlands website.
On a hike through the Millingerwaard nature reserve, one of the locations where the wolf is most likely to reappear first, he explains some of the reasons behind Sweden's wolf hunt:
"Environmentally and ecologically speaking, the return of wolves is an enormous advantage. However, the Sami people live in large parts of Sweden and they are reindeer herders. Generally speaking, they don't have such a good relationship with the wolf. Reindeer are their livelihood and they naturally want to protect them."
Wolf populations are gradually moving towards the Netherlands from the east and the south. In Germany, wolves have moved westward over the last few years and now they are about 200 kilometres from the Dutch border. In France, they have been signalled in Vosges. Vermeulen is certain that wolves will reappear here soon:
"We have observed that wolves are moving further westwards; the natural habitat of European wolves is very similar to parts of the Netherlands. Large parts of our border provinces would be perfectly suited for wolves and we expect them to turn up there first."
There is more space for the wolf in the Netherlands thanks to the continuing process of urbanisation. People are leaving the countryside for the cities and the countryside is emptying out. A modern farmer now cultivates an area that was previously utilised by dozens of small landholders.
The emptiness and the peace and quiet, combined with sufficient prey and cover is an ideal habitat for the wolf. The fact that a few people still live in the countryside is no hindrance. The fact that wolves have a range that stretches over hundreds of kilometres has convinced Vermeulen that it won't be long before the feared predator appears in the Netherlands.
However, just as in Sweden, wolves have an image problem in the Netherlands. Fear of wolves is a deep-seated fundamental fear. Wijnand Jurriëns, a warden at the Millingerwaard nature reserve, (Dutch language website) is looking forward to the return of the wolf with any great enthusiasm even though he is well aware that wolves would help to keep the natural populations of other animals in check:
"Everything has its place. If a wolf can prey on an animal that has been shot or is lame, then its chance of survival is far greater. Wolves certainly have a place in the food chain, but to have them here in Millingerwaard, well, that's going just a bit too far for me."
Asked when we can expect the wolf to return to the Netherlands, Roeland Vermeulen gives a disconcerting reply: "it's entirely possible that a wolf has already turned up. The first wolf will probably be a loner that pretty much keeps to himself. I really don't think that we'll notice when they slip over the border."
Thijs Westerbeek van Eerten