Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

The Swiss government is supporting a programme of Italian guard dogs to make the Alps safe for both sheep farmers and the protected wolves who are restoring the local eco-system

Top Stories | Christian Cummins | July / August 2012

At 6:00 the Swiss mountain hamlet of Jeizinen is still cloaked under a blanket of morning fog, wisps rising from the steeply pitched roofs and concealing all movement in the Alpine meadows above the village. It’s "wolf-weather" according to the locals, an opportunity for the carnivores back in Switzerland, after a decade’s long hiatus, to attack local flocks.

But Terremoto, the sheep’s faithful bodyguard, is letting his presence be felt with a baritone warning bark that reverberates out of the gloom. And then the chunky guardian dog emerges from behind the curtain of murk, putting his bulk between me and the 50-strong flock of sheep that he and his partner Tania will protect all day, all night, all summer.

Weighing a full 35 kilos, the dog, whose name means "earthquake" in Italian, is thickset with a square head and massive front paws. With his floppy ears and furry white coat smudged by mud after a night out in the June rain, he looks like a cross between a retriever and a polar bear. He might not know it, but Terremoto is part of a flock protection programme that is being closely followed in Austria and Switzerland.

There are around 160 guardian dogs active in Switzerland, up threefold since 2003. If they can succeed in scaring away the wolves but not the tourists, these furry white giants could reassure mountain communities. The dogs could prove that there is still enough space in the Alps to accommodate both livestock farming and the large predators that played a vital role in the local ecosystem for millennia, before they were driven from Switzerland a century ago.

Man versus wolf – it’s an age-old conflict forgotten for almost 100 years. Deprived of their habitat and hunted to regional extinction, the last Swiss wolf was thought to have disappeared early in the 1920s.

But in 1995 a few individual wolves returned, moving up from Italy, where they had never been eradicated, passing through France on the way.  This time, they were shielded from hunters by the Bern Convention of 1979, a binding international legal instrument that has classified these wolves as part of a "strictly protected" species.

Opinion polls show that 76% of Swiss now welcome the presence of wolves as a triumph for biodiversity. But the return is particularly popular in the cities, and it is easy to cheer from afar. For many farmers, they are usually seen as an unwelcome headache.

On average, 130 Swiss sheep are killed by wolves every year. Last year the toll was 274 although only 10 wolves are thought to be currently roaming the high mountains. Many of the attacks were here in the Wallis canton, where sheep of the unique local breed, the Valais Blacknose, are highly prized and losses acutely felt.

Kurt Eichenberger, a biologist from the Swiss branch of the conservation group WWF calls for some perspective in this emotive debate. There are 300,000 sheep in Switzerland, he points out, so only one in a thousand is likely to fall victim to a wolf, whereas there are a reported 5,000– 6,000 cases of livestock being injured by domestic dogs. Farmers are quickly compensated by the Swiss government, provided that they can prove their sheep were really killed by wolves.

Yet many farmers remain furious, and in 2010, under pressure from farming lobbies, a motion was launched in the Swiss Parliament that could see Switzerland withdrawing from the Bern Convention if the protection laws preventing the killing of wolves are not eased – a move that Eichenberger has described as " potentially disastrous".

"In a way, the return of the wolves is a success that should be celebrated," says Manuela von Arx from the monitoring team KORA. Wolves disappeared because the Swiss forests had been decimated by logging and depleted by overhunting. Their return is a sign of restored ecological health.

Scientifically speaking, there is room for wolves in the eco-system, even taking into account their astounding carnivorous appetite. Wolves need around 4 kg of meat a day, the equivalent of 25 deer a year. For this, they are in the right place: The gradually expanding Swiss forest’s are currently teeming with an estimated 100,000 deer.

This burgeoning game population is actually threatening the health of the forests because deer feast on young trees and undermine the forests natural regeneration. Thus, by controlling the game population, wolves are playing an important role. They also keep the deer population healthy by naturally targeting the sick and weak, whose survival has been artificially aided by winter-feeding programmes.

But ecological viability and social viability are two separate issues. The key is to make sure that the wolves stick to the woods and leave the farmer’s livestock alone.

That’s where Terremoto comes in.

Wolves, not being stupid, know a free lunch when they see one. Hunting in the forests is hard work. Only one attack in ten is successful, as deer and rabbits are fast and wily. Unprotected sheep, on the other hand, are not. A wolf that has tasted this "fast food" is likely to come back for more. Unless it meets a giant white guardian dog like Terremoto.

"A hungry wolf sees a herd of sheep and thinks that he is looking at an easy meal," says Walter Hildebrand, Terremoto’s owner and trainer, "but then two dogs arrive, and he’s forgotten that he is hungry." It is simply not worth the danger and energy for wolves to attack protected sheep. In the area around Fribourg last year, he says, 81 unprotected sheep were killed, but where dogs were guarding the flocks, only one sheep was lost.

Terremoto is of the Maremmano breed, an instinctive protector. For centuries the Maremmanos have guarded the sheep in the wild mountains of the Abruzzo in central Italy. Puppies are put in a stable to live with lambs as soon as they are born and come to see the flocks as their own family, sheep and dogs sleeping side by side, nuzzling up against each other for warmth on the cold mountainside.

It takes three years until they are mature enough to be trusted to protect a flock without the surveillance of a shepherd, and at nine years of age, a Maremmano is ready for retirement. Walter sells his trained dogs for around 2,000 CHF (€1,660). They eat 500g of dry food a day, serving themselves from special sheep-proof containers. It’s an expensive form of protection, but the Swiss government subsidises the programme to the tune of 1 million CHF (€800,000) a year.

Some regional stakeholders fear the large white dogs will frighten away the tourists. Every year there are a few incidents of a guardian dog biting a human, although Hildebrand insists that these are usually just cases of a few ripped trousers.

The WWF’s Kurt Eichenberger says almost all incidents could be avoided, if Alpine tourists followed the simple guidelines found in brochures at the cable-car stations and tourist offices. Yet opposition remains so intense that nine of Walter’s dogs have been poisoned since 2002. No perpetrator has even been found.

On the other side of Switzerland, above Scuol in the Engadine valley, dog trainer Jan Boner teaches me how to approach a flock protected by guardian dogs. "Just slow down, don’t panic and let them come and sniff you," he advises, "and then walk on, giving the flock a berth of 20 metres."

The dog’s owner Benjamin Stecher, who purchased them from Walter’s breeding centre, says his dogs have never had any problem with hikers. "They are tourist-friendly," he insists.

In this region of Switzerland, the greater threat to the sheep comes not from wolves but from the brown bears that have been sporadically crossing over from Italy since 2005 and occasionally attacking unprotected sheep or ravishing beekeepers’ honey hives.

Most bears are tagged and closely monitored by wildlife experts, and the mountain communities are slowly adapting to the new visitors, installing special bear-proof rubbish bins to deter scavenging missions to villages.

Bears can be scary, but according to Jan Boner, the tourists have been attracted by their return: "They want to see a strong biodiversity," he says. Michael Leibacher of the local tourist office agrees, "We offer intact nature, and wild animals are part of that nature. We have to get used to it."

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