120 years ago, the wild wolf roamed freely on the flat land of the Netherlands. However, the last official wolf sighting on Dutch soil was in 1897.
At the Bern Conference in 1979, Europe determined that the wolf should be granted the status of a protected species. Slowly, wolves migrated across Western Europe from Poland and Germany to the Netherlands. Sensing its return to the country, the Dutch government added the wolf to its list of protected domestic species in 2014.
Today, the Netherlands is home to four wolf packs. Most of the packs live in the Veluwe, one of the country’s largest nature reserves located in the eastern province of Gelderland.
The return of the wolf to the Netherlands in 2017 did not go unnoticed. Wolves started attacking the livestock of Dutch farmers, mainly sheep, and turmoil within the Dutch public sphere soon erupted.
Farmers, animal rights activists, experts, and the government are currently engaged in a heated debate over how to deal with the animal’s return.
In an ongoing context of polarisation between farmers and the government over proposals for the reduction of nitrogen emissions, the wolf is an added source of tension.
In fact, the return of the wolf is becoming an important issue in Dutch politics, just like immigration, climate change, and housing.
Kieskompas, a website where visitors complete an application to discover their position on the political spectrum, included a question on the return of the wolf for the first time in its 16 years of operation during the lead up to the provincial elections in March 2023. The question asked in seven of the twelve provinces was: should the wolf be given space in the Netherlands or not?
We met with Frank Theunissen, a boswachter (forest watcher) for Natuurmonumenten in the southern region of the Veluwe known as Zuid-Veluwe, at the office where he works alongside 22 other forest watchers.
Sat in a wooden conference room surrounded by maps, antlers, and drip coffee makers, Theunissen told us that his main task is to “give good information” about the legitimate and illegitimate fears surrounding the wolf.
He strongly questions the politicization of the wolf in the Netherlands.
“I think it’s fairly strange that a question about a wild animal is asked to what political choices you have to make because it’s a protected animal. In Europe, we all, and we, the Dutch government, signed for it. We made an obligation to the wolf. So I don’t know what the fuss is about,” he said.
The Big Bad Wolf
According to Thenuissen, there are several reasons behind the ‘wolf panic’ in the country.
“It’s a new animal, it’s a predator. We don’t have any. The people who live now have never had to live with a predator,” he said.
We also sat down with Dutch film director Cees van Kempen at a cafe in The Hague. Van Kempen spent the last six years tracking down and researching the first steps of the wolf in Western Europe for his 2022 feature film, Wolf.
The way he sees it, “the fear of the wolf comes mostly from fairytales.”
Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf are examples of cautionary tales read to children all over Europe. For centuries, these stories have warned us of the dangerous wolf lurking in the forest.
However, people in the pro-wolf camp believe that focusing on the damage that the predator has inflicted on Dutch livestock is not helpful for finding a co-living solution.
They emphasize that these myths are being pushed onto the public by the Dutch media.
Van Kempen described to us how journalists contribute to added fear of the wolf in the Netherlands:
“No Wolves in the Netherlands“
While Thenuissen and Van Kempen accuse the media of sensationalism, farmers and shepherds across the country stress their grievences. They wake up to find their beloved livestock injured or killed by a wolf, and the images are bloody.
Many farmers and shepherds are beginning to fear for their livelihoods.
Ellen van der Zeep, a shepherd in Gelderland who manages a flock of over 300 sheep with her husband, told NOS that they “are now seriously considering stopping” after 21 of their sheep were allegedly killed by a wolf overnight back in March.
In 2015, BIJ12, a prominent organization that collaborates with the Dutch provinces on matters related to the environment, started keeping a record of the wolf attacks happening cross in the country. Farmers who suspect their livestock was attacked or killed by a wolf are asked to fill in a form to document the attack.
The results of this form are made open to the public on BIJ12’s website. According to their database, there have been 352 reports of wolf attacks on farm animals filed so far this year. Sheep are by far the most frequent victims of these attacks, followed by calves, goats, and horses.
However, concerned farmers and shepherds are not the only groups that constitute the anti-wolf camp. For example, Rik Bakker is a professional North American Indigenous Flute player and activist who firmly opposes the return of the wolf to Dutch soil. He is a self-proclaimed “wolf lover” – just not in the Netherlands. In 2018, Bakker created the Facebook page ‘Wolven In Belang van de Wolf in Nederland Nee’, which translates to ‘In the Interest of the Wolf, No Wolves in the Netherlands.’
He believes that the wolf belongs on vast prairies, not in his “small” country. He fears that the worst might happen.
“They will kill all the deer, they will get people and children… then they will get you or me,” he stressed to us.
Living with the Wolf
However, the data shows that fear around wolf attacks in the Netherlands is being overblown.
BIJ12 also provides insight into the actual damage done by wolves to livestock. Every year, it releases a report on the compensation provided by the Dutch government to farmers who experienced “faunaschade” or “fauna damage”.
In 2021, the compensation fund amounted to over 36 million euros. The grey goose committed more than 50% of all faunaschade in the Netherlands and cost the government over 18 million euros in compensation to the farmers. Meanwhile, wolves cost the Dutch government less than 50,000 euros in damages.
Van Kempen says that “if you put it in that perspective, there really is no problem.”
The way he sees it, the wolf is nothing but a big dog:
However, wolf attacks do occur. To prevent these attacks on livestock, experts recommend farmers take certain precautions.
Thenuissen showed us an enclosure surrounded by a wolf-proof fence used to contain sheep in the Zuid-Veluwe. The fences are electric, and the first wire is placed at a maximum of 20 centimeters above the ground in order to prevent wolves from digging under it:
While he acknowledges that investing in these fences can prove to be costly, Thenuissen also told us that he believes some farmers are not taking the necessary precautions to protect their livestock because they are, as he puts it, “egotistical”.
“It’s a mindset, it’s from the stomach. It’s not based on facts, so that’s the problem. And people don’t want to. There are a lot of people who don’t want to take measures to take care of wolf attacks. They just say shoot them,” he said.
“The Wolf Doesn’t Kill, Humans Kill”
Those who defend the presence of the wolf in the country point to the environmental benefits it has been bringing to the Netherlands. As Thenuissen said, “the longer the wolves are here, the more I understand how much we missed them.”
Having spent several years studying wolves for his feature film, Van Kempen is convinced that they should be welcomed to Dutch wildlife with open arms and, more importantly, protected:
He emphasizes how the return of the wolf to Dutch soil is proof that the measures taken at the Bern Convention and other protective policies are finally serving their purpose.
“Actually, we should celebrate instead of fighting with each other,” he told us with a smile.
Thenuissen sheds light on another important aspect of the wolf’s return to the country:
“Open the Gates! All Animals Free!“
According to the Multi-Year Defragmentation Program, the Netherlands is home to over 500 wildlife crossings. These crossings range from bridges, known as ecoducts in Dutch, to underground fauna tunnels. They allow animals to roam freely all over the country without risk of getting hit by a truck.
In 2013, an ecoduct was built in Oud Reemst to connect De Hoge Veluwe National Park with the rest of the Veluwe.
At least one pair of wolves and 6 pups currently live within the park’s territory. According to the official website of De Hoge Veluwe, wolves entered the national park “with the assistance of ill-intentioned people who cut holes in the fencing”, an accusation which Van Kempen calls “utter nonsense.”
The construction of this ecoduct cost the Dutch government over 8 million euros.
However, De Hoge Veluwe decided to close the ecoduct in 2019. Omroep Gelderland reported that park management was afraid of wolves entering the park from the Veluwe and attacking the mouflon herd that lives there. Four years later, the closure of the Oud Reemst ecoduct remains a contested issue.
On May 22, 75 people gathered on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the village of Otterlo to demand the opening of the ecoduct.
The protest march was organized by the Maastricht-based environmental activist group Active for Justice.
Chess, one of the organizers of the protest, argues that the closure of the ecoduct has turned the national park into a “glorified zoo.”
Above all, the protesters were concerned with how the closure of the ecoduct will affect wolves in the future.
“People in this area are concerned about wolf attacks, which I get. But also, it’s going to be made worse if they can’t leave. If they cannot cannot get out of this park, chances are that they will attack somebody,” Chess warns.
We arrived early at the starting location of the protest march – a small patch of grass on a busy intersection – as the event organizers were preparing large flags, signs, and chants.
Two representatives from the municipality of Ede arrived on the grass. We could not get a statement from them on the stance of the municipality on the cause of the protest, but they told us they came to ensure the event was “peaceful.”
Slowly, more and more activists of all ages, representing Active for Justice, Vrije Bond Utrecht, and Extinction Rebellion, arrived.
The protest was also met with counter-protesters. Three middle-aged women handed out pamphlets from the anti-wolf association “Vereniging De Mouflon” to passersby. They refused to be interviewed but expressed their grievences about wolf attacks on the mouflon population at De Hoge Veluwe to us.
After a quick speech by the organizers, the march to the entrance of De Hoge Veluwe began. Soon, the roaring chants “Open the Gates! All Animals Free!” would ring through the small streets of Otterlo:
At one of the entrances to De Hoge Veluwe, protesters staged a sit-in while the organizers tied a petition calling for the opening of the Oud Reemst ecoduct to the fence of the national park:
In the Netherlands, there is a pro-wolf camp, an anti-wolf camp, and Rik Bakker personalities who find themselves somewhere in between. The protest was simply a local manifestation of a broader conflict between groups who have different interests in finding environmental solutions.
The most obvious actor missing from the protest, however, was the wolf.
Thenuissen argues that wolves are not going to be leaving the Netherlands anytime soon. “When you kill that wolf, four days later, the wolf who’s now in Berlin stands in your backyard again,” he said.
In his opinion, the only way forward is by facilitating a more fair discussion on the return of the wolf:
“The only thing we can do is tell the story, keep telling the story, the fair story. A wolf is a predator, it’s not a pet animal, so you have to respect it. But it eats meat, so it kills animals… We think that we can organize everything, but that’s not true. There are a lot of problems that will be solved if there are wolves, but you must want to see them.”
First gif courtesy of Frank Thenuissen and Natuurmonumenten
Second gif courtesy of Cees van Kempen