Animals: Where is the wolf? Trackers and the magic of nature

The risk of confusion is high: citizens claim to have seen a wolf on the move and report it to the authorities - in the end it is just a large dog.

Animals: Where is the wolf? Trackers and the magic of nature

The risk of confusion is high: citizens claim to have seen a wolf on the move and report it to the authorities - in the end it is just a large dog. Even Paul Wernicke can't always be 100% sure, because the footprints, i.e. the paw prints, are very similar. The 45-year-old runs a wilderness school in Bad Belzig, Brandenburg, and supports the state's wolf monitoring as a tracker.

“It has something magical because you just don’t see it often,” he says of his encounters with the wolf. On this cool autumn morning he is out and about with two companions in a forest in the Hoher Fläming Nature Park. Since his first course when he was in his mid-20s, he has been addicted to animal tracks and stories from nature, says wilderness educator Wernicke. "For me there is nothing better than being outside."

In the forest, the trackers collect hair and feces samples and try to identify the footprints of wolves. Marking arrows with which they mark tracks on the ground, a folding rule and sometimes a thermal imaging camera are part of the equipment. Several packs of wolves are said to live in the landscape of the Hoher Fläming Nature Park. In 2017, a hunter from Denmark caused a stir when he shot a she-wolf during a hunt near Bad Belzig. The wolf is a strictly protected species in Germany and - apart from rare exceptions - cannot be hunted.

Where is the wolf?

In a beech forest, the trackers inspect a cave - a possible whelping hole, like the one a she-wolf digs to give birth to her offspring, as Wernicke explains. He crawls further and further into the burrow until only his calves and feet are visible. However, no fresh wolf tracks or remains can be found.

“Well, I gave wolf courses for many years before I saw my first wolf,” says Paul Wernicke, who lives with his family in a remote area on the edge of the forest. Now things are different: "The wolf regularly runs along the edge of the field 15 meters behind my house."

Spread to 182 wolf packs in Germany

Germany has become wolf country again. The wild animals belonging to the dog family are constantly expanding. According to the latest figures from the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, there are 184 packs, i.e. wolf families - 22 more than in the previous monitoring year 2021/22, which lasts from the beginning of May to the end of April of the following year. Most live in Brandenburg.

Conclusions about the population are drawn, among other things, through genetic examinations of feces, hair and swabs from prey animals. According to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, camera traps are also considered a proven method. Volunteer wolf representatives support the monitoring.

Attacks on grazing animals anger farmers, and there have long been calls for shooting quotas. Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens) wants to enable faster shooting of individual wolves in regions where more grazing animals are killed. Environmental and animal rights activists, for example from the Nature Conservation Association (Nabu), can get used to this, but the planned approach is not enough for hunters and farmers.

The trackers from Bad Belzig are passionate about wolves. A skull is displayed as a 3D model in the wilderness school, wolf hair is stored in plastic bags, paw prints in clay can be used to explain how one can recognize a wolf track. “I believe that it is slowly percolating through society that being close to nature, knowing your way around out there, and feeling comfortable there is becoming more and more important,” says wilderness educator Wernicke.

Wolf, fox or golden jackal?

In the future, in addition to the fox and wolf, a third larger predator could increasingly leave traces: the golden jackal. According to the German Wildlife Foundation, the species originally living in Asia and the Balkans is spreading to Northern and Western Europe and thus also to Germany. The golden jackal is closely related to the wolf, but is much smaller and shyer. The first documented evidence was in Brandenburg in 1997. In recent years there have been sightings in more and more federal states. However, according to current knowledge, the golden jackal is unlikely to settle in established wolf territories - its big brother poses a deadly threat to it.