The wolf in the Netherlands: refugee or actor

The wolf in the Netherlands: refugee or actor

Lecture by biologist Tijs Goldschmidt

13-10-2021 · Background

By now, more than thirty wolves have settled in the Netherlands, but is there a place for such a top predator in our welfare state? This question was asked by writer and evolution biologist Tijs Goldschmidt and discussed in his Studium Generale lecture. At the moment, Goldschmidt holds the Eugène Dubois Chair.

As much as ten years ago, when the wolf had not set foot on Dutch soil yet, many meetings were devoted to the animal, says Goldschmidt. “Generally not referring to the wolf as an enrichment for our ecosystem. All too often, it was about the risk and problems of wolves. They almost seemed like refugees or psychiatric patients, who are also quickly labelled, while the wolf hadn’t even had a chance to misbehave." 

In his lecture, next Thursday, Goldschmidt will explain about the anthropological, ecological and cultural-historical aspects of the wolf in the Netherlands. He will not be doing that as a scientific researcher but as a writer. He observes, sometimes with a mocking look, and is surprised again about the state of affairs.

"What interests me, is the tension between wish and practice. We would like to have the wolf back, because it is a wild animal, but at the same time, we demand that it behaves itself, that it doesn’t cause too much damage, doesn’t kill too many sheep or, like recently, a pony. At the same time, the question arises: What kind of wild nature does the Netherlands still have? In his book Next Nature, philosopher Koert van Mensvoort speaks of animals as actors. Scottish highlanders acting like they are wild between opening and closing time of the park. An original image, although I do actually see the wolf as a wild predator that could also fulfil this role in eco systems."

Wolf expectations

This will have rather a lot of consequences, says Goldschmidt. "The last wolf was shot in 1869, in Schinveld. His return, a century and a half later, will go hand in hand with a cascade of all kinds of effects. In Yellow Stone Park, where the wolf was reintroduced in 1995, the grazing behaviour of other animals changed immediately. They were more fearful, more alert, and allowed themselves less time to chew on willow tree branches."

Because of this, more was left for the bevers, whose numbers increased. "They also built more dams, resulting in the deceleration of the flow of the rivers. That, in turn, had consequences for the salmon, for which it became less easy to swim upstream. In the Netherlands, you will see that deer, roe and wild boar will start to avoid open spaces. Because of this, the vegetation, types of insects and the growth of trees will change. There will most likely also be an increase in ravens, because carcasses will be left lying around."

People will have a different experience in nature if there is a chance of meeting a top predator, a potentially dangerous animal, says Goldschmidt. "You will walk through the woods with a 'wolf expectation'. I may find that exciting, but others might find it scary. Still, that deep-seated fear that wolves attack people, is unfounded. In theory, they could grab a toddler or a baby from a pram, but the last time that happened, was two hundred years ago. And I suspect that it wasn’t a wolf, but a rabid dog."


The modest return of the wolf has already had consequences for farmers and shepherds, who now and again find a number of dead sheep lying about in the morning. "I feel that farmers and shepherds should be supported with this, also financially, even though by far most sheep are killed by dogs. Yet you don’t read in the newspaper how dangerous rottweilers are. This has to do with the fact that dogs have lived by our sides for the past thirty thousand years."

A solution could be that shepherds take along trained dogs to protect their herds. "There is, for example, the Karabash, the Turkish sheep dog, that is really big and dangerous, also for people, by the way. In Kenya, this dog is used to keep cheetahs at a distance. The Karabash is not suitable for the Netherlands, but other kinds of guard dogs would be."

This problem will be solved by itself in time, because the wolf’s diet consists mainly of deer, roe and boars. “The wolves that grab sheep are still young and not very experienced hunters. They have had to leave their pack in Germany and entered our country via abandoned military training areas. Once they have formed their own packs, they will leave the sheep alone.”

Who is Tijs Goldschmidt?

Writer and evolution biologist Tijs Goldschmidt (1953) made a name for himself with his book Darwin’s Dreampond (1994), in which he describes his research into the furu, a kind of perchlike fish, in Lake Victoria. The book was nominated for the AKO Literature prize and has been translated into many languages. Since then, he has written a lot about the common ground between art and science and between nature and culture. At the moment, he is working on the bundle of essays called Wolven op het ruiterpad (Wolves on the Bridle Path).

Goldschmidt is the sixth professor to hold the Eugène Dubois Chair, his predecessors including primatologist Frans de Waal and marine biologist José Joordens. The Chair is named after Eugène Dubois (born in Eijsden), who became famous at the end of the nineteenth century with his fossil find of the Java Man, the missing link between apes and humans. It was the start of a new scientific field: Palaeoanthropology. Later on in life, he returned to Limburg, and lived near Haelen.

Photo: Pixabay

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