Dr Terry Mabbett revisits the topic of grey wolves and their potential reintroduction to the woodlands of the UK, turning his focus on Belgium, where the growing population has been causing quite a stir.

IF longevity of interest is a measure of success, then Forestry Journal is well on track, or so we could infer from correspondence from Dr Chantal Dereepere (Forestry Journal 326, October 2021). The letter referred to my article ‘Is grey wolf a rewilding too far’ in Forestry Journal 313 (September 2020), and took me to task for saying Belgium is coping well with the reintroduction of the grey wolf. What I actually said was: “If northern France and Belgium, with relatively high rates of urbanisation, can safely support a few grey wolves, then there is no good reason why appropriate areas of the British Isles can’t do the same.”

READ MORE: Grey wolf reintroduction: a rewilding too far?

However, I am not so sure that ‘reintroduction’ which implies ‘man’s hand’ is the right word to apply to Belgium, where wolves are wandering across the border from Germany in the north east and France in the south east. Of course, grey wolf would have to be reintroduced to the United Kingdom (unless it could swim across the English Channel).

Be that as it may, the letter was timely and prompted me to revisit the situation. When I wrote the article in 2020, Belgium appeared to be excited about new sightings of wolves in the province of Limburg in northern Belgium and the Ardennes region in the south east of the country. One pair of wolves in each region was reported to be expecting cubs, with six adults in total thought to be in the country. 

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This had apparently made up for an earlier disappointment after a she-wolf named Naya made her way into Belgium in 2018 from Meckleburg-Vorpommern, 500 km away in Germany. Naya mated with a lone resident male, but disappeared in 2019, having apparently been shot by hunters, along with her cubs. According to the European Wilderness Society, this created a huge outcry in Belgium with three NGOs and a private entrepreneur offering a €30,000 reward for identifying the culprit(s).

This time around, the authorities moved quickly to protect the newly-arrived wolves, with Flanders' environment minister Zuhal Demir vowing the family group which had carved out its territory in Limburg province would be strictly guarded.

The charity Welkom Wolf subsequently announced that four wolves had arrived in Wallonia, the French-speaking region in southern Belgium, during the first three months of 2020, bringing the total number of wolves in the region to six. The four newcomers included three males originating from France or Italy and the first she-wolf in Belgium’s High Fens area for 200 years, named Noella. Welkom Wolf told the press how a German she-wolf had joined a German male on the plateau of the High Fens, an area of boggy moorland and woodland rich in rare plants, grasses and endangered black grouse.

Jan Loos, managing director of Welkom Wolf, said the wolves in Flanders had probably travelled from lowland Germany via the Netherlands, while the majority in Wallonia had come from mountainous regions in France. This would be the first time wolves from these two areas in Western Europe had mixed for more than two centuries.

“These are two different streams of wolves migrating into Belgium," said Loos. "One stream comes from the north-east and the other stream comes from the south and they are now meeting each other in Belgium. We (Belgium) seem to have become the cross-point (crossroads).” 

The exact origin of a grey wolf is determined by DNA testing using excrement samples, matching them to a European database for grey wolves in Europe. Despite the excitement, Welkom Wolf told The Guardian how it remained very concerned for the safety of these wolves in Belgium because there is insufficient protection from hunters. It criticised Flemish authorities for not doing enough after hunters were seen in a protected region around the time of she-wolf Noella’s arrival.

Jan Loos was adamant wolves are invariably killed by hunters rather than farmers. “It’s really not that simple to kill a wolf,” he said, referring to the vast range covered by the typical lone wolf or wolf couple. “You will have to spend a lot of time in the woods. No sheep farmer has the time or interest to be there that length of time.” Farmers are allowed to erect electric fencing to keep out wolves and they can claim compensation if sheep are killed. 

When I wrote the article back in 2020, there were apparently no reports of wolves killing farm animals in Belgium, presumably because the new arrivals had not yet sorted out their menu. But over one year on, as Dr Dereepere says, some farmers have lost livestock to wolf predation – mostly sheep. 

According to a series of articles by Helen Lyons for the Brussels Times, an increasing number of incidents involving wolves have been reported. This includes wolves preying on sheep, bovines and equines. Reports of more than 30 sheep falling victim to attacks by wolves around Jalhay, Liege in Wallonia were reported in late August 2021. 


Violaine Fichefet, a biologist in charge of wildlife monitoring at the Walloon Public Service, told the Brussels Times: “Sheep farmers in the region are concerned about these attacks, the modus operandi of which points to the wolf.” According to Fichefet, DNA analyses were expected to confirm a wolf as the culprit and how there were two live hypotheses concerning that wolf’s identity. “We know that Akela, the male wolf living in the High Fens, found a female and the pair had three wolf cubs that needed to be fed. Or the attacks may be the work of another isolated wolf.”

Wallonia, like Flanders, has its own wolf-prevention plan aimed at helping livestock farmers to prevent attacks. One part of the plan is installation of wolf-proof fencing, with the Walloon government subsidising 80 per cent of the cost. Another way is through the use of dogs. However, farmers and other keepers of livestock are still apprehensive, especially in Flanders, with many deciding to keep their animals inside after a spate of attacks.

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Farmers have been offered help in electric fence erection, but there has apparently been a problem with the availability of materials, while the cost is claimed as prohibitive despite government assistance. Some farmers question the feasibility of fencing all the areas at risk. One farmer said electric fencing was easily breached by the wolves.

“It’s clear the wolves just break through our electric fencing, which is no longer enough to protect our sheep,” said Johan Schouteden a sheep farmer and cattle breeder. He thinks the government should subsidise guard dogs and develop a broader approach to the issue of wolves.

Flemish Environment Minister Zuhal Demir said if required she would follow the protocol for problem wolves, which stipulates that when wolves attack livestock more than once, additional measures will be considered. These could include relocating the wolf to another area or killing the animal. Interestingly, Schouteden doesn’t believe in removing wolves. “The wolf is here now and we will have to learn to live with it," he said. "If this wolf disappears another one will take its place. After all, it is a protected species.”

And I suspect he is right. Rewilding is increasingly high on the agenda of many top politicians in many countries, including the United Kingdom where it is increasingly seen by many politicians with no real commitment to the cause as a trendy idea and a halo-burnishing policy. 

Indeed, our Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a recent convert to conservation and animal welfare, is very much on board with re-wilding, having recently promised to ‘build back beaver’ in his speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. However, when asked what he was going to do about the plight of pig farmers faced with slaughtering over 100,000 healthy pigs on their farms and burning the carcasses due to ongoing problems with the food supply chain, he said the pigs would have died anyway and become “bacon sandwiches”. 

Forestry Journal: Prime Minister Boris JohnsonPrime Minister Boris Johnson

Dr Dereepere refers to many innocent animals being killed by wolves in Belgium and how it is only a matter of time before humans fall prey. The 100,000-plus pigs now facing stun-less, on-farm slaughter by bolt-action gun are clearly innocent animals. However, I doubt whether politicians obsessed with rewilding are likely to be bothered by the loss of a few sheep and the odd Shetland pony to grey wolves, should the erstwhile native wild canine be re-introduced to Britain. Whether the loss of a little old lady wearing a red, hooded anorak would evoke a different response is another matter, although it might depend on the political persuasion of the wolf’s lunch.


Under Directive 92/43/EEC, the European Union (EU) has given grey wolf (Canis lupus) the status of a strictly protected species and banned intentional killing, given the critically endangered status of this native European wild canine. 

The European grey wolf population (excluding Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) is estimated to be 12,000 animals. Of these 1,800, 500 and 2,000, respectively, are reported as resident in Germany, France and Italy.