The symbolic wolf: Competing visions of the European landscapes

The symbolic wolf: Competing visions of the European landscapes

Author: John Linnell/Sunday, June 1, 2014/Categories: Gallery

The carnivores are coming back. The wild returns. Their return triggers emotions as diverse as awe, wonder, joy, satisfaction, frustration, fear, hatred and anger. Why are these species so controversial? The answer does not solely lie in the direct economic impacts they have for some rural stakeholders. Rather it is because they are triggering a fundamental debate about the future direction of the European landscape.

During the last year, the presence of four wolves has been confirmed in Denmark! That’s right. Denmark. A country more famous for its beer and bacon than wilderness. Nothing could be more symbolic than this of the ongoing recovery of most large carnivore populations in Europe. In 2011, the European Commission funded a continent wide review of the status of large carnivores by an independent group of experts, the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe. This review provided the best available snapshot of the status of four species, brown bears, wolves, Eurasian lynx and wolverines, across Europe [1].

The overall picture was remarkably positive, in contrast to what would be expected when considering species like large carnivores that are often regarded as wilderness dependent species, on a crowded continent like Europe. Certainly, there are some populations of some species for which the situation remains critical (e.g. bears in the Pyrenees, wolves in southern Spain, Balkan lynx). Other populations appear to have stagnated at an undesirably low level (e.g. many of the reintroduced lynx populations in central Europe, the Abruzzo bears). However, for most of the others populations the situation is remarkably positive. The large populations appear to be stable and many others are expanding. This is especially true for wolves, with increases in Scandinavia, the northern European plain, and the Alps. Even the small bear population in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain is showing positive growth.

The same assessment also revealed a wide range of threats, but still the overall picture permits cautious optimism. It is safe to say that we have now gone beyond the stage of saving these species from regional extinction, and are entering a phase of managing the success of this conservation project. And this may well be the greater challenge. Although the public at large, including a clear majority of rural inhabitants, are very positive to carnivore conservation, there is a significant proportion of rural people who experience this conservation success as major source of conflict. The conflicts are diverse and complex[i], and there is no doubt that for livestock producers the return of large carnivores can represent an additional burden on an already highly stressed industry. However, it is clear that the overall perceptions of conflicts are only poorly related to the extent of economic losses for which large carnivores are responsible. The extremes of negative rhetoric and actions (violent protest, illegal killing of carnivores) indicate that there is something deeper going on.

For the last 20 years, a great deal of research has been undertaken within the social sciences to try to understand the nature of conservation conflicts [2]. The results of this research are now coming to bear on the problems of carnivore conservation. The underlying explanation appears to be that the large carnivores have become symbolic of a deeper struggle over the way different segments of society view the European landscape. From a traditional rural point of view, the countryside can be viewed as a “production landscape”. This is a landscape that produces useful products that society needs, such as crops, livestock, timber etc. For most of human history, this has been the clear priority as our very survival depended on it. The dawn of the 21st century has altered these priorities. Globalization and agricultural intensification in the lowlands has led to a dramatic decline in agriculture in marginal areas. Whole villages become abandoned and centuries old farmlands are reverting to scrub and forest. The whole fabric of traditional rural life is changing, and its adherents are right in feeling that a whole way of life is facing extinction. New forms of production are entering the landscape too, such as energy producers who seek to build wind parks and hydro-power plants.

In some areas, traditional activities are maintained where the landscape is managed as a “heritage landscape”. Agricultural and environmental subsidies permit the maintenance of livestock grazing and mowing. But even in these areas the participants often fear that they are becoming museum objects. The huge expansion of rural and nature-based tourism offers new economic opportunities for many, but even this emergence of a “recreation landscape” can provoke a sense of provocation for others if it becomes too dominant. The most recent demand that is being placed on the landscape is to turn it into a “conservation landscape”, and this is where the large carnivores come in. The recovery of these species, especially the wolf, is highly symbolic of all these changes. Their return epitomizes all of the other “modern” trends that are threatening the traditional view of how the landscape should be managed.

Certainly each of these four landscape scenarios is incompatible with the other if taken to the extremes. Managing a landscape for extreme recreation with ski-slopes and motor vehicle tracks will certainly reduce its conservation, heritage and production values. Equally, an extreme conservation landscape managed for wilderness will exclude all production, most heritage and some recreation activities. However, when looking away from the extremes there is a clearly a very high degree of common ground where aspects of conservation, production, recreation and heritage can be combined into the same landscape. And these landscapes can contain large carnivores. Wilderness may need large carnivores, but luckily, large carnivores do not need wilderness. From all across Europe we have examples of landscapes where large carnivores are successfully living in multi-functional landscapes. There is no doubt that their presence requires some adjustments on the parts of humans, exactly as the carnivores have to adjust to the presence of humans. But the world does not end!!

Although it is possible to achieve multi-functional landscapes, the fact remains that there are many interest groups pushing very hard for relatively extreme versions of their preferred landscape. Given that we have only one Europe there are going to have to be some compromises. The question at the heart of large carnivore conservation then becomes how we (society) are to find these good compromises? The answer is obvious. It can only happen through a process of dialogue and negotiation. Because these decisions will affect the whole continent, it is refreshing that the European Commission’s DG Environment has been actively working to improve stakeholder dialogue by creating a range of arenas for them to interact. There is still a long way to go as many stakeholders are still having difficulty accepting the premise that they have to compromise. But there is progress and for most stakeholders, in most parts of Europe, there is a clear possibility to move forward. The most challenging areas are those where large carnivores have returned after long periods of absence, and here some rural stakeholders are fighting against the premise that the carnivores should be reintegrated into their landscape.

These issues are not going to be solved overnight. There is going to need to be a lot of talking, and even more listening. Patience, respect, and a willingness to accept compromise are the necessary ingredients. Time is also going to help. Experience will show that living with real carnivores is much easier than living with the symbolic carnivores that have been constructed in the rhetoric of extremists, although there should be no doubt that experience will also reveal that these creatures are not saints either! Luckily, the present status of most populations indicates that we have time to talk and move forward with a certain amount of trial and error. Nobody has all the answers yet. Different things will work in different areas at different times. And it is worthwhile taking good time. The goal is to reach a mutual accommodation between humans and carnivores, and between different groups of humans, that can be sustained into the future. And even though Rome was founded with the aid of a she-wolf who suckled two lost children, it was not built in a day!


John Linnell

[1] Kaczensky et al. 2013 Status, management and distribution of large carnivores – bear, lynx, wolf & wolverine – in Europe. Can be downloaded from www.lcie.org

[2] Linnell (2013) From conflict to coexistence. Can be downloaded from www.lcie.org


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