Dog trains man

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Wolf and The Hovawart, Old Foes Or a New Beginning?

Wolf in Ovstrup Hede, Denmark. Photo: Carl Skovbjerg Johnsen
The wolf has returned to Denmark. I am delighted, thrilled and excited all at once. Not only for the wolf, but also for what could follow in its path. What may lie ahead is a new understanding. A new definition of the Danish relationship not only with nature and wolfs, but also between the Danes and dogs in general.

Let me explain. Due warning though, this will be a long essay.

Back in December 2012 a dead wolf was found in Denmark. It was big news. The last wolf seen - and shot - in Denmark dates back to 1813. Like in other Western-European countries, there were no more wolves left, until in 1995 the wolf became a protected species and they started to re-appear again from Eastern-Europe. The find of the dead wolf indicated they had managed to reach as far as the mainland of Denmark, Jutland. From the Polish/Slovakian border with Germany, all the way to Denmark, a travel from well over 1,500 miles.

The return of the wolf spells a return to what once was. A time in which the Hovawart also played its part in the history of the wolf in Europe. Sadly, they vanished together. When the last wolf in Germany was shot, there was no more need for Hovawarts to protect homes and herds, and although the wolf continued to thrive in the East, it was the Hovawart, who had forged its allegiance with men, that went extinct, or at least, went extinct in its original shape and form.

Nature fascinates me. Eco-systems fascinate me. In Denmark, especially in Jutland, there are vast forests, heath-fields, streams and lakes. We hike there with great pleasure, discovering beautiful places, plants and wild-life. But I always had mixed feelings when we returned from our hikes. Feelings that everything I saw and witnessed was artificial. It wasn't real nature. It was conserved, managed and cultivated by humans. A true ecosystem could only exist by the presence of apex predators like wolves and bears, as showcased in this video, How Wolves Change Rivers. The lack of apex predators meant, humans would attempt to take their role, hunting deer and other animals to keep their numbers down, while breeding and protecting other species to keep numbers up. It was an artificial ecosystem to say the least. I have been pestering Merete as long as we know each other, to move up to Norway or Sweden closer to unspoiled nature, so far to no avail, and my lust can only be stilled by occasional vacation trips.

The wolf fascinates me too. As a youngster I grew up conflicted by the horror-stories and fairy-tales from our Western literature on one hand, and the tales of native people, in touch with nature, who respected the wolf and nourished its spiritual importance on the other hand. Fed by Jack London's books, I started to guess about their intelligence, their adaptability, their connection with dogs, 99.8% wolf themselves. Already as a 13-year old I had my "call of the wild", and my parents bought me a one-way train ticket that dropped me off just over the Dutch border - the Netherlands was my birthplace - to hike through Northern-Europe with a friend. We had no money and nothing else than a tent and a can-opener. We roamed, not so much of the land, but of the friendly and hospitable farmers we met along the way. I asked them if they knew of any wolves around. They laughed. After a short month we crashed and burned, and I had to ask my parents to send money for a train-ticket home in defeat. We tried again next year, this time with bikes allowing us to make more miles, but the ending was the same.

Since then I devour every film, documentary or book with wolves in it. I celebrated their re-introduction in Yellowstone national park behind a TV-set following the "Druid" pack. The more I read and learn about wolves, the more I start to acknowledge them for the complex and intelligent creatures they truly are. That all peaked last week, when I read Nick Jans' book "A Wolf Called Romeo",  in which a wild wolf builds a relationship with the dogs and citizens from the town of Junea, Alaska. It underlines their complexity as no other and fueled my fascination of them even more. It makes me even more happy to know they truly have returned to Denmark and I now live among them.

Back to the lone wolf in Denmark, scientists researched the dead wolf, found out it was a lone migrating wolf from Germany, and they tried to estimate how many more wolves would follow, and if there would be any habitats in Denmark that could sustain them. They made a map, and drew red circles around the areas they thought could support wolves (p. 14 in this paper). Areas with plenty of heath-fields and forests, with few human inhabitants, and with plenty of game, especially deer, to hunt. To my delight, one of the circles was drawn around the area where we have our cottage on the West-coast. So far we have never seen an actual wolf, but our hikes have certainly changed since then, and I am always in anticipation of actually meeting one and how such an encounter will unfold.

The scientists also investigated wolf sightings and tested cadavers of killed animals for wolf DNA in an attempt to find out how many more lived in Denmark and which of the suited habitats they seem to prefer. One wolf soon became two. Two became four, four became eight, and today, a lot sooner than scientists expected, 19 confirmed individuals are living in Denmark. One of them a female, and she is believed to have given birth to a litter last year. I also follow another map the scientists maintain, which marks confirmed wolf visits. One of those dots on the map is on the other end of the forest in the picture below, the forest we can see on the horizon when we look out of our window:

The view suddenly turned a lot brighter. The dream of that little boy seems to come true anyway.

Am I not worried? Not at all. Ever since the wolf became a protected species a lot of research have been done how dangerous they are to humans and every single case of a wolf attack, from the 1800's until today, from all over the globe, has been researched by among others the Norwegian Institute for Nature Science, NINA, in their paper "The fear of wolves: A review of wolf attacks on humans". The vast majority of attacks can either be contributed to rabies or humans by mistake teaching wolves there is an association between humans and food. The conclusion therefore is wolves don't see humans as prey, they are actually afraid of us and will avoid contact if possible. As long as we can keep Northern-Europe rabies free, be vigilant not to teach them we can be associated with food, we have not much to worry about.

I even don't worry on behalf of Kenzo and Tilde. And that's not because they are invincible Hovawarts. Although it is not totally true because I always worry about them. Instead, let's have a look at my list of dangers. Ticks are my main concern, then other dogs which are not friendly, blue algae, and so on. Traveling further down the list you'll even find humans, like people that hate dogs, trigger-happy hunters, etc. First at the bottom of the list you'll find wildlife, like the viper, and at the absolute bottom of it, the wolf. Wildlife is at the bottom for a reason. They will always try to avoid us, the other items on the list do not and are therefore more worrisome.

Scientists also tried to predict to which level a wolf population could grow in Denmark and estimated a population between 60 and 100 individuals. Most would end as roadkill and as victims of other wolves competing for the same territory, and it is very unlikely the population could grow beyond 100 individuals. That would mean one wolf per 165 square miles of Danish land. I guess we won't be running into one soon.

The Danes have a steep learning curve. Other countries that habitat wolves are way ahead of them, and initially I was worried what would happen. The wolves are constantly in the news with ominous headlines but I am relieved to learn each time, how authorities keep their head cool and use their air-time to diffuse any fear for wolves. They even showed restraint when a wolf had been feeding of deer living in a park in a city center, adjacent to a children daycare center. The park in the city's center was connected to a large wildlife habitat and explained why the wolf was there, it had just followed the deer, hunted them, and left again.

Inevitably, the first incidents of wolves preying on sheep soon surfaced. With only the occasional dog to worry about, sheepherders hardly invest in wildlife protection. The response from the Danish wildlife management was swift, and they supported the affected sheepherders by paying damage and helping them finance electric fences. So far so good. But still a lot to learn. In Germany and Switzerland they already learned how these fences will repel insufficiently, and what you really need are livestock guarding dog breeds. Breeds like the Great Pyrenees, the Kuvacz, and yes, even the Hovawart. The first German sheepherder, who lost dozens of sheep to the wolves, introduced livestock guard dogs in 2002. After that, he never lost a sheep again. Also not to rogue dogs.

Livestock guarding dogs are no ordinary dogs though, but the German and the Swiss have also thought of that, and started information campaigns to teach people how to behave and act when people would meet such a canine shepherd in the field. Here are some examples: a comic book for children (Germany), an educational video for children about wolves and livestock guard dogs (Germany), and an instruction video for mountain bikers and hikers (Switzerland). Note in those videos as well, the signs that have been erected around areas where herds graze with livestock guarding dogs protecting them and what to do in case you are perceived as a threat by these dogs.

And now comes the catch. A lot of these livestock guarding breeds are banned in Denmark because of the Danish Dangerous Dog Act. But the Danes would need them in the very near future. It is a conflict the Danes would have to solve. It is important the Danes do so soon as well, for our own safety and the safety for wolves as well, as we risk right now, wolves learn to associate people with food. A priority Danish wildlife management is well aware of.

The wolf might bring a great gift to Denmark. Not only by enriching Danish wildlife and ecosystems, but maybe also by furthering the Danish understanding of dogs and their uses, and how we can all live together in this small country in harmony, without the fear of the "bad wolf" and also, the "bad dog". The wolves bring this unexpected gift for an opportunity to grow, to stop banning and killing everything we don't know, but to listen and to try to understand, simply by allowing nature back into our midst.



  1. a great and well-thought out article, I'm glad it was long!

    I'm thrilled that wolves are coming back in a lot of places, and peoples' fear and willful ignorance of them (like, not being willing to listen or learn in the slightest regard) really frustrates me.

  2. Thank you for such a detailed history of the wolves in Europe, and in your neck of the woods in particular. Here in the U.S., we cohabitate with wolves, yet most people are either ignorant of the wolves' existence in their own area or fall for the hype and confusing headlines. I sure hope you get to realize your childhood dream - may you meet the wolves some day!

  3. Very nice article! Here in Western Kentucky in the States; we don't have a wolf problem yet. However,we do have a coyote problem. Which is how I was introduced to the Hovie breed, and how we ended up with our Bear. Since we've gotten him, we haven't lost one bird (chickens and guineas both), and haven't lost a calf or any cattle; and none of our neighbors in a few square miles have either. He's actually killed three coyotes this past year, and while our neighbors were a tad upset about that deep,booming bark at 3am at first; the protection and loss of livestock and pets have changed their minds. Now, he gets Christmas presents from the neighborhood, lol.

    I just hope the Danish don't end up with a situation with predator overpopulation like we have, and that they understand that guardian stock aren't inherently dangerous, they just HAVE to have a job to do.

    Anyway, your blog is awesome, your dog is better, and thanks for trying to enlighten the masses!

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