The return of wolves to the Czech Republic after more than a century

Wolves are slowly returning to the Czech Republic after more than a century. What kind of environment are they returning to, do they have enough prey and adequate conditions for breeding? And are the country’s present day inhabitants ready to live in harmony with them? Those are questions I put to Jakub Čejka from the Agency for Nature Conservation and Landscape Protection.

“Wolves lived on the territory of the present-day Czech Republic up until the mid-19th century when they were completely eradicated by humans. In modern time, wolves first reappeared in the 1990s on the country’s eastern border with Slovakia, in the Beskydy Mountains, and later, since approximately 2010, they began spreading into northern and also south-western Bohemia from neighbouring regions of eastern Germany, western Germany and Poland. They first started breeding again on our territory in 2014 in Ralsko, a former military area and in 2016 in Broumovsko, a landscape protected area.”

I know there are photo traps. Do we know how many wolves there are now? How many packs?

“The last data we have is from 2020 because the data from 2021 are not yet fully analysed. In 2020 there were 22 packs or territorial pairs –I think it was 14 packs and 8 territorial pairs -and in 2021 we expect to see a mild rise in these numbers. As for individuals, I think there could be between 60 to 80 individual wolves in the Czech Republic at the moment.”

What kind of environment are they returning to? What prey are they hunting? Are the conditions for breeding good and are there enough places where they can live in isolation far from civilization?

Photo: Lukáš Žák,  Czech University of Life Sciences Prague

“Actually there are not really places -at least in the Czech Republic- where they would be far enough from civilization, but wolves –throughout Europe -  are showing a remarkable ability to adapt and to live in an environment greatly changed and shaped by humans. Traditionally they are seen as shy forest dwellers, but in recent years they have expanded into agricultural areas with less than 10 percent forest coverage in western Germany. In our country they predominantly live in forested mountain regions along the borders, but due to their high mobility and especially during the migration period they can be found almost anywhere in the country excluding densely populated areas, of course.”

We have heard cases of wolves venturing close to farms and killing sheep. How big a danger is this and what can be done about it?

“First of all, I would like to stress that farm animals form from one to five percent of wolf prey and this changes according to the season, or the times when they have young to feed and at the same time their mobility is restricted, so they look for easy sources of food. And wolves really cannot distinguish between wild prey and forbidden farm animals. However there are effective measures that can be taken to prevent these attacks on farm animals. The most important one is proper fencing – I would recommend using electrical net fences of a sufficient height, ideally combined with other measures that would prevent wolves from digging and crawling under the fence because they commonly do not jump over, contrary to what most people believe. Those measures, ideally combined with a shepherd dog to guard the flock, work most of the time to prevent damage to farm animals.”

And because wolves have not been present in this part of the world for years, farmers are inadequately protected, is that right?

“That’s the problem, exactly, because even in areas where wolves have been present for four or five years farmers do not really expect that such a thing could happen to them and are really surprised when it does. In such cases we are able to help them, to give advice on how to secure their livestock and, as an emergency measure, we are able to loan them equipment free of charge for several months until they can take their own protective measures and build proper fences.”

The locals say they are afraid to go into nearby forests and fear for their children. Is there a danger of wolves attacking human unless they are cornered and act in self-defence?

“There have been several studies on this topic – one in 2000 and a follow-up study in 2020 –which indicate that there have been cases of wolves attacking humans. But in most of these cases the wolves were either injured or sick, or they had rabies, which was a common thing in the past and in some countries still is. What can also happen –though that is not the case in the Czech Republic -is that in villages that are very close to forests where people have open garbage cans wolves lose their shy ways and show unusually bold behaviour towards humans. And in such cases attacks on people can happen. But there is time for people to observe this unusual behaviour and react adequately.”

These new packs that have been forming on Czech territory – are these wolves here permanently or do they move across borders depending on the prey available and the conditions for breeding?

“Well these packs are here permanently, wolves are territorial animals, but since they live in areas close to the border their territory often overlaps into other states. Each of the packs usually consists of three to seven individuals –which would be the reproducing pair and its offspring from the last or previous year – and each of these packs roams a territory of 100 to 300 square kilometres depending on the abundance of prey or morphology of the area. So that’s a large area and they do not recognize state borders (laughs).”

What is the situation like across Europe nowadays –is there a coordinated effort to protect wolves on the continent?

“Yes, certainly. That is one of the underlying causes of their recent spread – that wolves have become a protected species in most European states. There are still countries that allow wolves to be hunted, but in Central and Western Europe the wolf population is protected either by legislation or, since 1992, also by the European Habitat Directive, which has designated special sites for their protection. We have one in the Czech Republic- the Beskydy Nature 2000 site.”

How are their numbers regulated if they are not threatened by bigger predators, which I assume in this country they are not – can they be hunted?

Wolf | Photo: Kateřina Hlavatá,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

“Wolves are so called top predators, there is no other predator that preys on wolves –it is only humans that have the means to kill them and so regulate their population. However wolves also have an internal mechanism regulating their numbers, which is linked to availability of food, abundance of prey, which regulates how many cubs a female has and also by stress within the population. If there is a low supply of food and many wolves in the area then this will lead to fights between them and they may even kill one another. Also from the stress, the females may not conceive any young or the young will not survive into adulthood –that is the internal mechanism regulating their numbers. Another mechanism is that young animals migrate away from the overpopulated territories and look for new territories where to settle –which is what is happening now in the Czech Republic.”

So now there is now a ban on hunting wolves in the Czech Republic?

“Yes. Of course, there are exemptions, such as if a wolf does not show fear of humans and is a threat or if an animal is seriously injured or has rabies. But in such cases the authorities must approve an exception to the law.”

As we said, wolves are returning to this country after more than a century –in what way are they important for the balance in Nature?

“They have a very important role in regulating the numbers of large ungulates like wild boars, red deer, roe deer which live on our territory and these species damage crops –every year there are damages to the tune of millions of crowns.  The return of wolves is seen as one of the possible solutions or contribution to reducing the numbers of these animals. This also concerns forest restoration and growth because deer species damage young trees and if their numbers are lowered by the presence of wolves there would not need to be expensive measures to protect young trees.”

What are your hopes for the future of wolves in this country?

“My hopes are that we will learn to live in balance with this large predator –and any other -and accept and respect its presence as an integral part of our natural heritage.”