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The quartet of predators is complete again

04.11.2015 – Marc Lettau

Switzerland is becoming wilder – indigenous but eradicated predatory animals are returning. City dwellers far removed from nature are thrilled at the prospect but sheep and mountain farmers are outraged. Especially as far as wolves are concerned, society fluctuates between glorification and primordial fear.

We are going back in time a long way. On 4 September 1904, Padruot Fried and Jon Sarott Bischoff, two hunters from Grisons, were trying to ambush chamois on the side of Piz Pisoc when a bear suddenly appeared nearby. Bischoff, the more experienced hunter of the pair, took aim. But his shotgun failed and no sound was heard other than a metallic clicking noise. Now it was down to Fried. He pulled the trigger and the animal weighing just under 120 kilograms slumped to the ground. Fried became a hero, the much-lauded bear slayer, as he had killed the very last bear in Switzerland. The animal was dismembered, pickled and served to guests at the Tarasp casino.

State-supported eradication

The images from the time are part of the Swiss collective visual memory – including as a memorial. Because it was not just the bear that was wiped out – the last lynx was sighted on the Simplon Pass in the same year. The eradication of the otter, the agile fish predator which occupied all Swiss rivers at the time, was also approved through state bounties. The indigenous wolf had long been extinct. Even the chamois hunter Fried only knew of them from hearsay.

A clicking sound was nevertheless heard again in 2015. Only this time it was not the firing of a shotgun but the flash of a camera trap. Wildlife biologist Christof Angst was simply seeking to obtain photographic evidence of how happily the once extinct beavers were splashing around in the river Aare. Instead a whole family of otters passed by his lens. Experts were thrilled as the discovery marked a turning point: Well over a century after the accurate shot was fired on the Piz Pisoc, all members of the key quartet of indigenous predators – the bear, lynx, wolf and otter – are present again in Switzerland.

Wolves form first pack

The first to return was the lynx. It did not come voluntarily but was instead brought back. Lynx were relocated in 1971 and have since established themselves in the forests of Jura and the central and western Alps. In 1995, the wolf returned to Switzerland from Italy. Its offspring are today forming the first packs in Grisons, in the Calanda region, and in Ticino. Since 2005 individual bears have continually roamed into Switzerland from Trentino through the mountains of Grisons. The otter, whose fur was used as headgear until well into the 20th century, is the last of the quartet to return. “What’s really surprising,” explains Christof Angst, “is that the quality of our waters is now so good that the otter can breed here again.”

The otter has come home, proving how much the condition of the waters has improved. Wolves are back, underlining just how much the forests destroyed by charcoal burning in the 19th century have recovered. The return of the wolf nevertheless divides society. Wildlife biologists and urban nature-lovers are delighted, but sheep and mountain farmers are furious. Those who are pleased obviously include the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) which has been observing the wolf’s return for years: “Wolves are an asset for Switzerland,” remarks Martina Lippuner of the WWF. Their increasing numbers are changing the balance in the Swiss animal kingdom for the better, she says. The settlement of wolves means an improvement in mountain forests in particular. These forests, which also protect valley communities against avalanches, have been adversely affected by extremely high numbers of deer in many places. Deer eat the shoots of young trees on a large scale, damaging the vitality of the forests. “The deer are becoming more timid due to the presence of wolves and are behaving in a way more appropriate to their species. “That is having a positive impact on young forests,” indicates Lippuner. The lynx had a similar effect to wolves 20 years earlier in the Bernese Oberland.

Using the shotgun against the “wolf problem”

The lynx, the silent hunter on soft paws, is also flourishing. Lynx numbers have already climbed to around 200 adult animals, which means the authorities responsible occasionally intervene with corrective measures. Animals are caught and released elsewhere – such as in Germany or Slovenia – without making any headlines. It is a very different story with wolves. The question of how many of these predators confined Switzerland can sustain has been at the heart of fierce debate for years. The outcry is particularly loud in Valais where herds of sheep until now spent the summer on the Alps without shepherds or protection. This is not altered by the fact that federal government invests three million Swiss francs a year in the protection of herds despite a situation where damage caused by wolves – around 300 sheep attacked a year – only amounts to around 150,000 Swiss francs on average.

Relaxing protection of the species?

Those opposed to wolves are now trying to force Switzerland to leave the Bernese Convention, the species protection agreement supported by 42 European countries. This would mean the wolf losing its protected species status, allowing it to be hunted. The association known as Lebensraum Schweiz ohne Grossraubtiere (Swiss habitat without large predatory animals) is vehemently campaigning for this. The wolf “simply no longer has a place here” says Georges Schnydrig, the association’s president. He is also opposed to livestock guardian dogs whose task it would be to protect herds from wolves. Such protected herds would not be in keeping with the “traditional self-perception” and would present new problems in tourist regions. Having “snarling guard dogs” blocking the path of tourists is not a feasible option, in his view. Alleviating people’s fear of wolves is also an impossible task. “Our children are growing up with computers and cannot suddenly be expected to deal with wild animals again,” says Schnydrig. The return of the wolf is therefore “out of the question”. While in mountain regions the wolf signifies the loss of civilisation, urban nature-lovers like to see in them a warning against excessive civilisation.

The homecoming affects everyone

The federal hunting inspector Reinhard Schnidrig (see interview) advises against drawing city-countryside boundaries: “The return of the wolf will have implications for us all.” Sheep farmers now face a significant challenge, he says. However, the wolf will not remain in the mountain regions. “It will also roam into central Switzerland,” points out Schnidrig. Urban Switzerland, in particular, where the alpine region is heavily used as a “recreational arena”, will be faced with changes: “People from the city with little direct experience of nature will suddenly find themselves confronted with real animals when hiking or mountain-biking, most likely a livestock guardian dog that will bare its teeth and defend its sheep.” The hunting inspector said his most difficult task two years ago was ensuring objective debate about wolves in his home canton of Valais. Today he faces an additional problem: “The difficulties presented by city dwellers who are not prepared for dealing with the consequences of the return of wolves.”

Around 30 wolves are today roaming the Swiss Alps. Asked what that figure could rise to, Schnidrig replies: “Leaving aside people and their needs, Switzerland has space for around 300 wolves or some 50 to 60 packs. “That’s ecologically feasible.” However, if the question is how many wolves are required to ensure the survival of the wolf population in the Alps over the long term, the answer is: “Around 125 packs between Nice and Vienna of which 15 to 20 would be found in Switzerland.” What is socio-politically feasible – in other words, the answer to the question of how many wolves people consider acceptable – lies “somewhere inbetween”.

Countless endangered species

A further question: Is the reappearance of the lynx, wolf, bear and otter evidence of Switzerland’s fauna being intact? Martina Lippuner from the WWF does not believe so. The red list of flora and fauna at risk in Switzerland is “constantly growing”. The population size of many animals is “in clear decline”. Natural diversity should not just be measured by the number of animals but instead by the diversity of habitats in particular. No all-clear is given here either.

In fact, quite the opposite, according to Reinhard Schnidrig: “Humans have taken many types of habitat away and radically transformed them, such as through urban development or intervention in bodies of water. “There are lots of losers in the animal kingdom,” he says. It is particularly striking how the straightening of rivers and intensive use of hydropower has changed Switzerland’s waters: “They have been drained over the course of the past 100 years.” The once extensive marshlands, flood plains and wet mountain meadows have all but disappeared.

This is having dramatic consequences. 40 % of all Swiss nesting birds are endangered. As many as 80 % of all amphibians are deemed at risk in “drained” Switzerland. It is nevertheless the wolf that is stirring emotions.

Marc Lettau is an editor with the “Swiss Review”

To the interview with Wildlife biologist Reinhard Schnidrig

Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf

“My, what a big mouth you have, grandmother.” “All the better to eat you with!” The wolf had scarcely finished speaking when he jumped from the bed with a single leap and ate up poor Little Red Riding Hood. As soon as the wolf had satisfied his appetite, he climbed back into bed, fell asleep and began to snore very loudly.