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.
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 .
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.
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
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
last 20 years, a great deal of research has been undertaken within the social
sciences to try to understand the nature of conservation conflicts . 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.
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.
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!!
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.
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!
 Kaczensky et al.
2013 Status, management and
distribution of large carnivores – bear, lynx, wolf & wolverine – in
Europe. Can be downloaded from www.lcie.org
 Linnell (2013) From conflict to coexistence. Can be downloaded from www.lcie.org