For over 150 years, there were no wolves in Germany. They had been hunted to extinction and banished to the pages of fairy tale books, where they remained a firm part of the country's forest folklore, making children shudder in the night.
In 2000, the beasts returned. A pair of wolves was spotted in the eastern state of Saxony after migrating from neighbouring Poland, and as the population slowly grew and spread westward, old fears resurfaced. Many a sheep farmer would have preferred to chase them back over the border.
But researchers have reported findings that should at least allay fears that wolves feed on livestock. Scientists at the Senckenberg Society for Natural Research have completed a comprehensive study of the eating habits of wolves in the Lausitz region of Saxony, based on an analysis of their droppings over a number of years, and have concluded that livestock accounts for less than one percent of their diet.
They were found to eat mainly eat roe deer, which make up 55 percent of their menu, red deer (21 percent) and wild boar (18 percent). Rabbits account for less than three percent of meals.
"The feeding habits of wolves are the biggest source of contention regarding their resettlement in Germany," said zoologist Hermann Ansorge. "We looked at what wolves have on their menu and how it has changed since they reappeared in eastern Germany."
Thousands of Droppings Analyzed
Ansorge and his colleagues collected more than 3,000 wolf droppings and tested them for undigested matter such as fur, bones, hooves or teeth from the animals they devoured. That allowed them to conclude what they had been eating.
"Less than one percent of the prey analyzed was livestock animals," said Ansorge. Wolves eat virtually no sheep and other livestock if the animals are well protected and if there is sufficient alternative food, he said, adding that they avoid electric fences and guard dogs.
The study also showed how wolves have adapted their eating habits to their environment in the Lausitz region, the researchers wrote in a report in Mammalian Biology, a scientific publication. In Poland, the wolves mainly fed on the red deer native to the country's forests. During the first years they spent in the Lausitz, the proportion of red deer in their diets was initially higher. But over the years, wolves switched their diet to roe deer simply because these are more prevalent in the Lausitz.
However, shepherds and farmers have not been completely unaffected by the growth of the wolf population. "Since 2002, 315 livestock deaths in Saxony have been attributed to wolves," said Ansorge. Most of the victims were sheep and many were just killed rather than eaten. Ansorge said that on rare occasions, wolves kill several animals in a herd. "The wolves flee when they are disturbed in their feeding by a dog or a human," said Ansorge. That's why wolves prefer to dine on wild animals, he added.
At present, Lausitz has 11 wolf packs and one wolf pair. The size of a wolf pack keeps changing through births, the departure of animals, and deaths. In the course of a year, it can fluctuate between five and 10 animals.