Wolf land

Tobias Nicolai


North Denmark, Denmark

Big predators like bears, wolves and lynxes are returning to areas from which they have been eradicated for centuries. Denmark has had wild wolves since 2012, and those who thought that the return of the wolves would go off peacefully were terribly mistaken. Nothing is that simple when it comes to wolves.

Their re-immigration after being absent from the Danish landscape for almost two hundred years is anything but straightforward, and involuntarily the fabled predator now has the leading part in a heated debate. Everyone has taken a position, and when it comes to the wolf, emotions are as weighty as facts.

Behind fake news, political populism and polarisation the parties involved meet the predator on widely different terms. Wolf advisers meet frustrated sheep breeders who are trying to solve a completely new problem. Local citizens stand divided: Is it possible at all to be next door neighbours to a pack of wolves? Some can’t hide their excitement about the return of the wolf, and the wolf enthusiasts help scientists present facts and scientific documentation. Others join “Wolf-free Denmark”, founded on the very day a local man took matters into his own hands and shot a wolf in the West Jutland wolf zone.

This story sheds light on a new situation in Denmark. But it is also a universal story about the clash between man and beast, which might take place in Sweden as well as in Poland and North America.

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  • The Thy-wolf. In 1813 a wolf was shot near Estvadgård south of Skive in Denmark. The shooting down of the last wild wolf completed the intense and century spanning hunt for the predator with the bad reputation. After numerous but unconfirmed observations a dead wolf was found in Nationalpark Thy in december 2012. DNA sampling showed that the 3,5-year-old male wolf originated from the central european wolf population and it had traveled approximately 850 km from its birthplace in Sachsen, Germany. The Thy-wolf, with the scientific and technical name GW051m proved that wild wolves roamed Denmark for the first time in 199 years. Portrait of the skeleton of the Thy-Wolf arranged in the a hallway at the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen Ø, Denmark the 19th of april 2018.

  • The Sheepbreeder
    The red flesh lights up in the lambs white wool. DNA tests taken by the states wolf consultant confirms that wolves has engorged on the lambs already sold for easter. Late in the day Morten Thøgersen drives the rest of the herd home. “I can’t sleep at night when i think about them being killed out here”, says the sheepbreeder. According to international research presented in the Danish Wolf Management Plan from the Danish Nature Agency attacks on livestock are one of the main conflicts when wolves settle down in new areas. Experience from other countries show that attack on livestock primarily occur in areas where preventative measures such as electric fences haven't been put in place yet. Wolves has habituated Germany since 2000, and reports show that livestock account for 0,6% of wolves food intake. It seems as an insignificant percentage, but it can represent a big loss for the individual farmer. Morten Thøgersens herd of lambs on a field in Vemb, Denmark the 12th of march 2018.

  • The Habitat: The Western Wolf Zone
    Stråsø plantation has it all. Big connecting heath and forest areas, low population density and lots of game. So two wolves settled down in the area and got no more than eight pups in 2017. When a wolf pack needs to find food the risk of attacks on livestock increases. So the Danish Environmental Protection Agency has pointed out a special at risk area. The western wolf zone covers an area of 330 km2 and has proved to be the nerve centre for conflicts between wolves and humans.
    The National Centre for Environment and Energy has singled out ten areas in Denmark that meet the requirements for breeding wolves and therefore estimates that Denmark has space for ten wolf packs and a number of strayers. In the latest report from december 2018 published by the official wolf monitoring program lead by Aarhus University and The Museum of Natural History in Aarhus there is still at least five wolves in Denmark. Forest in the Western Wolf Zone near Holstebro, Denmark the 23rd of april 2018.

  • The info meeting
    “Hi, my name is Jan. Does it mean that you can take a walk in the forest at night?” The Danish Society for Nature Conservation is hosting a information meeting about wolves. The panel, a wolf consultant from the Danish Nature Agency, a nature planner from the Environmental Agency and a local wolf enthusiast is taking questions from the participants, to kill off myths and rumours about wolves. Information is key when humans has to live side by side with wolves. The local branch has bought a taxidermied wolf throning in the corner of the city hall. Photographed during the info meeting in Ringkøbing on the 17th of march 2018.

  • The Association
    Coffee and cake costs 20 kroner, submission costs 50. The association Wolf Free Denmark is hosting their founding general meeting in the local gymnasium in Ørnhøj. 200 chairs has been neatly arranged for the participants. But the manager of the place has to get more chairs to all the people that has turned up this evening. The association will be fighting for a peaceful danish nature, where neither adults, children or livestock has to fear an attack from wolves. The wolf must be eradicated. After presentations from local livestock holders the articles of association are corrected and a board is chosen. Two weeks later the newly elected chairman leaves his post over threats. Guests at the founding meeting of Wolf Free Denmark in Ørnhøj, Denmark the 16th of april 2018.

  • “I needed something to base my fear on. It has been really helpful to get knowledge from the researchers, and it made me realise that i’m not so scared anyway,” says Anne-Sofie Hermansen, who has participated in Project Wolf dialogue. The geography is a vital part in understanding the locals stance towards wolves. “We have the forest and nature as part of our surroundings, in the cities they opt in nature as an excursion. It is all about getting a nuanced view and an understanding of our daily lives out here,” says Anne Sofie Hermansen, who lives right in the heart of the western wolf zone. But her relationship to the local wolves are also double edged. On one side Anne-Sofie Hermansen is afraid of her sons safety when he plays in the woods. But she also wants to see the fascinating animal and eagerly takes plaster imprints of paw prints around the house. Anne-Sofie Hermansen poses for a portrait in her garden in Ormstrup, Denmark the 10th of april 2018.

  • The Supporter
    “It’s a problem wolf from Poland,” says Benny Bakkestrøm as a joke to the one asking whether the fur is real wolf. “The fur vest is a gift from my daughter who bought it in Poland for 1.200 kroner,” he adds. And it’s genuine. Benny Bakkestrøm lives in Tim in the outskirts of the Western Wolf Zone and is attending the public information meeting about the local wolves. Besides the fur vest on his upper body, he has not seen any wolves yet, but are very pleased that they are back in the area. Benny Bakkestrøm poses for a portrait at an info meeting about wolves in Ringkøbing, Denmark the 17th of march 2018.

  • The Wolf
    The pawprint taken behind Knud Christensens biogas facility corresponds to a pawprint from the big Ulfborg male wolf. “What worries me most is that the population density will provoke attacks. The risk of something happening is small, and may be unfounded - but its still there,” says Knud Christensen about the wolves presence in the local community. Wolves are apex predators and thus potentially dangerous to humans, but its natural shyness makes the risk of being attacked imperceptibly small. Knud Christensen poses with the plaster imprint of a wolf paw print in Spjald, Denmark the 2nd of april 2018.

  • The Wolf Consultant
    A dead lamb lies in an enclosure just outside of Vemb, Denmark the 10th of april 2018.
    “It has taken a solid bite of the hind leg, and there is teeth marks in the neck,” says Jens Henrik Jakobsen, while bent over the sheep performing an autopsy on-site. He is one of four wolf consultants from the Nature Agency that responds to possible wolf attacks on livestock. But he waits with his final conclusion until the tests has returned from the Senckenberg Institute where the Nature Agency sends all of the DNA samples to be tested. The samples are taken in and around the bitemarks with a cotton bud to sample spit from the attacking animal. According to the Danish Nature Agency wolf consultants responded to 127 suspected wolf attacks in 2017 to april in 2018. By performing autopsies and by DNA sampling 30 of them were concluded to confirmed wolf attacks. The wolf is often used as a scapegoat, because both dogs and golden jackals are behind attacks and killing of livestock.

  • The debater
    “I was absolutely thrilled when i in 2012 heard that a wolf had been photographed close the city i live in.” Since then Jonna Odgaard has participated in the public debate with 30 contributions in local and national newspapers. “First of all the wolf belongs in the Danish nature. It has been here since the ice age, and in 13.000 years it has only been gone for nearly 200 years. As an environmental journalist and nature lover i am an advocate for healthy ecosystems. We need an apex predator to regulate our enormous population of deer,” says Jonna Odgaard who is also a board member of the local Society for Nature Conservation in Ringkøbing Skjern.
    After publication of her contributions to newspapers Jonna Odgaard has received numerous anonymous letters. “I think debate is good, because it can educate people. But the wolf debate is characterized by hatred as we also see in the immigration debate,” says Jonna Odgaard. Raging personal attacks and threats happen every day for people participating in the public wolf debate. Jonna Odgaard poses for a portrait in her hometown of Ringkøbing the 27th of march 2018

  • The Enthusiast
    “Holy shit! It has a lot of photos,” exclaims Leif Meldgaard, who is attending to the wildlife cameras set up in Stråsø plantation. He walks purposefully around in the fine gray drizzle that softens the forests sounds. Besides being energy coordinator for the local municipality he is an eager wolf enthusiast and spends a substantial amount of his spare time on the shy predator. He corporates with Aarhus University and the Museum of Natural History, but Leif Meldgaard has no formal background, “it’s citizen science”, as he says. Even though the wolves inhabit the area the elusive animal is hard to catch on camera. “We have at least 50.000 pictures of deers. In average we have wolf in one of thousand photos,” says Leif Meldgaard about all the photos from the small camouflaged cameras. Photos and videos make up an essential part of the official monitoring of wolves in Denmark. Leif Meldgaard checking the wildlife cameras in Stråsø Plantation, Denmark the 5th of april 2018.

  • The Killing
    East of Ulfborg a four wheel drive pulls to a halt on a dirt road. From the driver's seat a single shot is fired towards the wolf trudging over the field. A split second later the wolf lies wrencing on the ground. The bullet enters the belly and kills the pup. The pack has been reduced by one. The media went into synchronized breaking mode and the Danish wolf killing went around the globe.
    The wolf is a so-called appendix 4 i EU’s habitat directive. It means that wolve are highly protected in its natural range of distribution which also includes Denmark now. The official wolf management plan makes it possible for the Danish authorities to shoot problem wolves as the last and final solution if they repeatedly attack livestock or have lost their natural shyness towards humans. The killed female wolf pup lies on a table after the autopsy at the National Veterinary Institute in Frederiksberg, Denmark the 17th of april 2018.

  • The scientist.
    “Wolf is without comparison the wildest thing to work with in the sense of communication. We have to tread carefully,” says Kent Olsen from the Museum of Natural History in Aarhus, that in 2017 won the bid on the official wolf monitoring program together with Aarhus University. “The biggest challenge for us as scientist is to make people understand that we in our capacity as scientist are impartial. We do not have any position on whether we should have wolves in Denmark. We have a professional interest in solving this task in the best way,” says Kent Olsen, while explaining that the danish wolf monitoring program consist of two axes. The active is about confirming or denying wolves with permanent territory in the danish landscape by using wildlife cameras and DNA samples. The passive axis is about verifying and collecting observations and finds from citizens. Scat from wolves are gathered in the nature and are kept in a big freezer in the basement of the museum. All the information are then typed on to the online wolf atlas. “The wolf atlas is our way of giving something back to the general public that does not require login and where we try to be as up to date as possible.” Kent Andreasen sitting for portrait in the lab at the Museum of Natural History in Aarhus the 16th of April 2018.

  • The sheep breeder
    “In the beginning i thought that it would resolve in some kind of way. But I have completely abandoned that point of view. It is not fair that vi cant have free-range animals without locking them in like Fort Knox. There is only one solution, and that is to regulate the wolves causing problems,” says Jørgen Blazejewicz. He has wolf-secure fences, and has lost both time and money after the wolves return. Experience from both Sweden and Germany show that proper fencing can reduce wolf attacks significantly, but Jørgen Blazejewicz is not convinced. “Not for one minute do i believe that fences can keep wolves out, even if it is 110 cm and with high voltage. I refuse to believe it”
    The Danish state compensates up to 105.000 danish kroner. But even with the subsidy the cost and maintenance is too much for Denmark’s largest sheep breeder. The grass grows too high and stops the voltage in the bottom wire and large red deer destroys them. “If the number of wolves means that we have to fence in all of our 54 areas we stop. I am not gonna spend the rest of my life maintaining fences that doesnt work,” says Jørgen Blazejewicz about the states solution to the challenge. In all there has been put up 35 km of wolf-secure fences in the western wolf zone. Jørgen Blazejewicz photographed on a pasture near his home in Idom, Denmark the 2nd of april 2018

  • The opponent.
    One night Anette and her husband takes a walk in the garden at the same as a group of wolves. After staring the couple, the wolves walks back in the forest. Now Annette's behavior has changed. “I dont walk alone in the forest anymore,” says Anette McWhan, who is also boardmember and treasurer in the newly established association Wolf Free Denmark. “They say that we have room for 100 wolves in Denmark, and then it is only a matter of time before we see attacks on people. Is this how Denmark should be?” says Anette McWhan, there in line with the association thinks that wolved once again should be eradicated in Denmark. Anette McWhan photographed in her old garden in Torsted, Denmark the 17th of may 2018.

  • The guardian dog
    Aase Svendsen has tried using both an alpaca and a donkey in the enclosures with the sheep. But the scare tactic only worked for a short period. After confirmed attacks from both wolf and golden jackal the sheep breeder from Skærbæk bought her first guardian dog in 2014. The maremma dog is a big, white guard dog that lives with the sheep year round. Guardian dogs has been used to protect livestock for millenia, but they are expensive in upkeep and takes a lot of work hours. One of the maremma dogs just gave birth to four pups, of which two is already sold to a sheep breeder in the western wolf zone. Aase Svendsen and one of her maremma guard dogs in the lamb enclosure close to her house in Skærbæk Denmark the 26th of march 2018.