The reality regarding wolves

The wolf is hated and loved at the same time, depending on how one has to deal with wolves. The wolf is not just one thing that can be described in a ready-to-go collection manual. The reality regarding wolves varies depending on many factors and details. However, being able to understand the reality of wolves is not that difficult if one thinks realistically and takes note of some facts with common sense.


I describe here based on our own experience and, of course, supported by the experiences of farmers and other stakeholders with whom we work. Specific information comes from the documentation of Canine Efficiency and our initial European brown bear conservation organization, Muskwa Wild. Initiators, writers and performers of this material are respectively: Koen de Louw and Ray Dorgelo. Some of the content comes from the EU LifeXtra project that Koen and I were part of, performing field research. 


Wolves, like all wild animals, are subject to constant change (dynamics). This is so in undisturbed nature, but due to human influence even more and more extreme. Wild flora and fauna, more than humans and domestic animals, are focused on survival. Each species fulfills a role in the ecosystem, but flora and fauna species and individual specimens are not aware of this. The urge to survive through strong instincts is the driving force behind just about everything wild species do.


Predators such as the wolf are not usually loved by farmers, but they are popular among city people. That is only logical, because a wolf in an animal park and in a beautiful nature documentary on TV is of course positive and impressive. Wild wolves in the immediate vicinity, which when having the chance can kill your livestock is of course negative and even more impressive. Unfortunately, many people do not possess a good knowledge about wolves and reality. Fairy-tales, myths and legends still make people afraid of wolves today. On the other hand, proponents of predators often paint a romantic picture of wolves, which does not benefit the realistic value and rights of these animals. Two camps are often opposed worldwide, largely because key positions on predator issues are not held by people with the right knowledge and experience. Many livestock farmers use predators, and especially wolves, as scapegoats to vent their frustrations towards the authorities about the difficulties of their hard work in their daily life. Both scenarios are anything but useful for the whole and will not help anyone. In places where the wolf has been gone for a long time, local people have no experience (anymore) in living with wolves, but in these modern times it is no problem to call in help by obtaining 'in house' experience. 


What exactly is needed to be able to live with wolves?

Besides common sense and knowledge, there are of course a number of things which can ensure conflicts with predators being kept to a minimum. Below are some examples:


• Implementation and proper execution of conflict prevention strategies;


• Sound compensation system for damage by predators;


• Preventing wildlife habituation to human food sources;


• Revised management of prey species, such as deer and boar;


• Proper provision of information to those directly involved and the public on key points in coexistence with predators;


• Sharing and executing "best practices" and exchange of experience between those involved;


• Strengthening and expanding correct conflict prevention measures;


• Creating a solid foundation for monitoring and documenting of conflicts between predators and human activities;


• Mobile electric fences and livestock guardian dogs;


• Strong involvement of local people and analysis of necessary measures for each specific situation;


Frequent monitoring should be done by, among others:


• Mainly by experienced experts;

• Combined agricultural / nature management student teams;

• Local nature area managers;


What is a wolf and what does the animal do to survive?

As I described earlier, the wolf is not just one thing that can be described in a ready-to-go information bundle. The reality regarding wolves varies depending on many factors and details. Below is a description the specie and behavior as we usually see it but supplemented with relevant facts that (increasingly) occur. There are the ideal desired conditions for wolves versus the realistic available conditions. The latter are the circumstances that are relevant. 

Wolves usually live in packs. A pack consists of a family of different ages and different rankings with the dominant (parental) pair at the top of the hierarchy. The parental pair takes care of the offspring, because normally only the leading pair breeds within the pack. In the event of death of one or both leading animals, other pack members will reproduce and lower-placed members will (have to) take higher positions. Within the pack there is an organized but dynamic division of roles and both males and females have a clear ranking. If there are strongly dominant litter-mates or older relatives, the nearly adult animals often leave the pack.


The food supply determines the pack size, so an increase in prey (favorable conditions) causes an increase in wolf numbers. Decrease in prey means a decrease in wolf numbers, due to lower to no birth rates and mortality due to lack of food and competitive fights. Larger packs hunt larger prey such as red deer and moose. Packs of less than 10 (more experienced) animals often target medium and small prey. Wolves sometimes dig (shallow) burrows themselves, mostly to give birth to and raise cubs. Burrows are also sometimes used as shelter by injured and sick wolves. Often old fox or badger burrows are enlarged and transformed into a wolf den.


In deep snow, pack animals run after each other to form a ‘single’ trail. Wolves choose to move on the most favorable surface, which is why already formed paths are often used. A wolf track trail is often distinguishable from a dog track trail because of the straight trail line. Most dogs zigzag quite a bit, playfully and more easily distracted by different smells and sounds. Wolves more determined movers, and this is reflected in their movement from A to B, the surface they use: usually in straight lines and in a swift pace (trot).


Territory markings are done through urine and feces on strategic and prominent points (such as crossings of paths and corridors). After urinating, scratching marks are often made on the soil with the hind legs. The territory is also vocally demarcated by co-produced high-pitched sounds, the so-called howling which can be heard over long distances and through which the pack members also communicate with each other. Facial expressions and body postures are extremely important for mutual communication.


The size of a habitat varies by landscape type, season and food supply; from 50 km2 in summer to 700 (1000) km2 in winter. In the warm season there is more food available for almost every animal species, which means that no long distances need to be covered. Food is scarcer in winter, so greater distances must be traveled to obtain food. Territory sizes vary widely. The average distance traveled per day also varies greatly, from 10-60 km.



Wolves are carnivores (meat eaters), but that doesn’t mean they don't eat vegetal food. Wolves are opportunistic. The pack hunts in groups, chasing large prey such as deer, reindeer, moose, roe deer and wild boars, often for a long time and long distance. Hunting wild prey is anything but easy and wolves should be happy when they catch something. Medium and small prey can be beavers, hares, rabbits, mice and birds; however, carrion is also eaten. Solitary wolves often confine themselves to these smaller prey or available domesticated animals (livestock). When wolves target livestock, the so-called ‘surplus killing’ sometimes occurs. This is because many domesticated livestock animals no longer flee the way wild prey do or cannot do that due to the fenced areas in which they live. The wolf undergoes kind of short circuit going on during 'surplus killing', because normally only one or a few prey can be caught.



The mating season of wolves is from February to April (slightly later in the colder north), the gestation period is 63 days and the birth from March to May. Nursing time is approximately 6 weeks. Wolves are sexually mature around 2 years old. It is rare for wolves to reproduce by then, and that has everything to do with the group hierarchy (normally only the leading animals reproduce). The litter size is about 3-7 puppies, once a year. Both parents provide food for the young which is partly pre-digested for the cubs. Older pups within the pack also participate in the rearing of the youngest ones. The maximum age in the wild is approximately 10 years, with some exceptions. The main cause of death is persecution by humans (shooting, poisoning, trapping, digging out dens and traffic) while the main natural cause of death for adult animals is starvation or injuries from fights.



Classic (desired) habitat varies from dense forest to tundra, but especially in vast open forests, inaccessible wetlands and mountainous terrain. However, due to large-scale habitat destruction by humans, advancing infrastructure, thus increasing competition for suitable habitat, wolves are increasingly found in habitats which they inhabit because there is no better place available. Survival means adaptation. Simply giving up just isn’t an option among wild animals.


Wolves and conflicts with humans

From the above information it can be inferred that wolves try to survive as efficiently as possible in just about everything they do. They will either have to avoid or overcome all obstacles they encounter. To prevent wolves from injuring and / or killing livestock, we must ensure that the obstacles are insuperable to them. Wolves have a lot of logic and common sense, so anything that is easy can be repeated. We can greatly influence the level of difficulty. Prevention is always and everywhere better than to cure. In the following paragraphs I will tell you more about predation and how to analyze and recognize certain situations. Our field of work was mainly Romania, so bear and lynx are also part of some of the information.



Is the process in which an animal spends time and energy finding a living prey and making further attempts to injure or kill the prey. The intra-vital (life-threatening) wounds are the anatomic-pathological consequence of the interaction between predator, prey and the environment.


• The predator: Wolf / Bear / Lynx / Fox / Dog

Each species uses a different depredation technique, depending on the situation and type of characteristics. A victim's injuries are never quite the same, because each predator has a personal predation style.


• The prey: Deer / Boar / Roe / Cattle / Sheep and Goats / Horses and Donkeys

Each wild species has and uses different anti-predator mechanisms, depending on its physical characteristics. Domesticated animals are much easier to hunt because they have lost much of their natural defensive mechanisms through human breeding selection. Predator's predation on prey results in direct, serious injuries.


• The environment: Forest / Open grassland / Grassland with shrubs and trees

The predator's method of attack and the prey's defense mechanism are both affected by environmental factors, such as sheltered terrain (where a predator can hide) and uneven terrain and various obstacles. Prey animals can suffer various types of indirect injuries caused by environmental factors.


The assessment of a predation event

A first action and of great importance during inspection of a predation event is to gather information from eyewitnesses and those directly involved. Every piece of information provided should be noted and evaluated but should never influence the search for details during forensic expertise. The cadaver should be examined by means of identification tables and photographs should be taken of the cadaver alone, then with its immediate surroundings and then per anatomical part of the body (head, chest, abdomen and limbs). After the photo shoot, the environment must be carefully examined for various possible traces, such as prints, drag marks, blood, organic matter and feces.


Hair, droppings and traces of a predator only prove its presence, but do not make the predator the culprit of the predation incident. Even proven consumption of the cadaver doesn't make a predator the killer. Eating carrion is done by many (predatory) animals, especially in the first years of life.


The next step is close external examination from head to tail, in that order, to potentially find the following:


Skin damage

These must be carefully examined to distinguish between intra-vital (alive) and post-mortem (post-death) injuries and try to find out how they arose.


• A wound developed while the animal was alive usually shows incipient inflammatory reactions. Often capillary swelling can be seen around the wound, an inflammatory swelling and bruising. No reaction will be seen in the tissue if the wound was inflicted after death.


• Bites result in torn and bruised wounds due to the pressure and movement of the predator's mouth and head through the teeth. The canine has a conical shape with an oval portion with rounded margins and a simple rounded point.


• When a canine penetrates the skin, it causes an oval wound with frayed margins and rounded edges. Tear wounds are caused by objects with sharply pointed ends, while wounds from cutting objects show a fine, sharp line edge.



The surrounding muscles and periosteum have bruises and sometimes blood loss if the animal was alive during the event. The reason for the fracture (bite, impact, etc.) can possibly be determined by the margins and surrounding tissue. Animals with dense fur should be shaved for accurate analysis of external wounds. After the external examination of the cadaver, the subcutaneous tissue and the muscles must be examined. For this, the carcass must be skinned, and this must be carried out by a qualified professional. The following details can be found after skinning:


• Intra-vital and post-mortem wounds.

• Wounds from bites and cuts.


The muscle tissue has less elasticity compared to the skin. Bite marks in the muscles maintain a distinct oval shape, frayed margins and rounded edges, but are more irregular than the external appearance of the wound. The wound may show tissue turned outwards, caused by retraction of the canines. Cut wounds show a long shape with regular margins and ‘neat’ edges. To investigate more, the cadaver will have to be completely opened by a qualified professional and the following can be discovered:


• Fractures and other organ and tissue wounds

• Body systemic responses.


The assessment cannot be repeated, so everything must be done correctly and documented in one go.


Data collection form

Everything that the dead animal experienced before death will have to be found through the investigation. Interactions with the environment, with any predator or other causes for any injuries and infections. A standard form provides objective collection of facts, so that comparisons can be made with other cases. An unambiguous format used by everyone ensures a good analysis procedure and a clear method to store data per category.


Identification of the affected person

For example: name of the farmer, type (s) of livestock (breed, sex and number), working dogs (breed, sex and number), location and type of pasture, type of night housing for livestock.


Identification of the study

For example: date, time of examination, animals involved (species and number), dead animals, injured animals, missing animals, adults (sex and age), young animals (sex and age), date of discovery, date of reporting, post-mortem time for each cadaver found, location coordinates, specific information provided by the farmer or witnesses.


Environment identification

For example: tracks present, blood, feces, hair.


Cadaver investigation

For example: species, race, ear tag / chip ID, skin examination, subcutaneous examination, muscle and bone examination, internal examination, estimated weight, estimated percentage consumed (for example: head 10%, chest 20%, abdominal cavity 20%, etc.)



For example: Has the victim been killed by predation or something else. Is there right for compensation or not, place and date, researcher name and signature.


Predation by wolves

Of Europe's large predators, wolves are the most frequent killers of livestock. The European wolf (Canis lupus lupus) is a predator and the largest of the Canidae family. Wolves share a common wild ancestor with ‘our’ dogs. The size of wolves varies by geographic region and any subspecies. The color also varies from region to region, with lighter colors especially in the northern regions. The skull appears flat and broad, with a distinctly wolf-like muzzle and little to no ‘stop’. Wolves have 42 teeth. The molars are very well developed and especially present to bite through bones and tendons.


Wolf Tooth Formula (Adult)

M Pm C I C Pm M

2 4 1 6 1 4 2 upper jaw

3 4 1 6 1 4 3 lower jaw

The wolf is an opportunistic carnivore with a very varied diet but specialized in predation. Wolves have a very good adaptability which means that they regularly invalidate the information generally provided by many biologists / ecologists. That is not the wolf's fault, but the lack of realism and relevant experience among those people. Wolves regularly kill domesticated livestock because they are easy prey due to the lost skills which wild prey still have, as well as the lack of proper protection and supervision of livestock. The wolf has developed the ability to seek out, hunt and kill its prey in a diversity of different habitats. The powerful bite of wolves causes them to make a lot of impact on their prey, which can be seen in wounds to cadavers.


Predation by wolves on livestock


Sheep and goats

In medium-sized prey such as goats and sheep, ranging from 40-80 kg, the size of the animal, the height from the ground, the diameter of the neck and the thickness of the skin make a bite in vital parts very effective. This can be clearly seen during a predation cadaver survey. Predation method often is one or more bites on the neck, just below the chin / cheeks. With large rams, we often see more bites in the aforementioned body area due to the larger and stronger build of a ram.

The assessment

Torn, bruised wounds from bites in the subcutaneous and neck muscles with a lot of blood loss and bruising. No direct wounds in other parts. For injured, living animals there is a risk of breathing problems due to a damaged trachea.


Young calves

Calves less than a week old are easy prey because they cannot follow their mother well. Even easier in modern dairy cattle farming, because they are often separated from their mother in a ‘igloo’. They often stand or lie still for a long time in the same place, their movements are slow and uncertain, and they are not agile. Predation on calves of this age by wolves is closely linked to the absence of protective maternal instinct of cows or the complete absence of adult cows. Predation method is aimed directly at the abdomen, at the navel, where the skin is thin and there is quick access to the abdominal cavity. The speed and functionality of the attack is clearly aimed directly at consumption.


The assessment

Torn and bruised wounds in the subcutaneous and muscles of the abdominal wall with bruising and blood loss. No direct wounds in other body parts.


Calves from 1 to 6 months

The risk of predation increases after the first month of life, as calves are more independent and more distant from their mother. After the age of 6 months, the predation chance decreases, because the calves are larger and more reactive. Predation method: attack on the hind legs (top part) and front legs (shoulder part). The bite aims to tear the tendons and muscles of the legs. Bites under the chin on the neck and on the nose also occur.


The assessment

Torn, bruised wounds in the subcutaneous and the muscles of the shoulder and thighs with serious bruising and loss of blood. Torn, bruised wounds on the nose and under the chin on the neck. No direct wounds in other parts.


Horses / donkeys

Predation is often on young stallions from 1 - 6 months. Predation method focuses on the back legs (thighs) to tear the tendons and muscles in order to immobilize the prey. Bites on the neck, just below the chin, also occur.


The assessment

Torn, bruised wounds in the subcutaneous and muscles of the thighs with bruising and bleeding and possibly the same in the neck region, just below the chin. No direct wounds in other parts.


Predation by dogs

Dogs are often responsible for injured or killed livestock. Because dogs are domesticated and have lack of practice, dogs are often poor hunters. Few dogs have the chance to hunt often and a lot to become more effective in hunting and killing. When dogs attack medium and large livestock, they will bite almost anywhere they can bite. The prey rarely dies from conscious bites, but rather from shock and exhaustion from the often long and chaotic chase.


Wolves, on the other hand, mostly are efficient killers whose necessary traits have not degenerated. When wolves attack a prey, they almost always do so to eat. They bite vigorously and to kill by the wounds inflicted.


When dogs get a good hold of prey, they focus on the neck and make large cracks with a lot of blood loss as a result. However, there are dogs that can kill efficiently with one bite to the neck. Superficial nail scratches are often found on a dog victim. Dogs often hunt and kill because of the persistent hunting instinct, but usually do not or hardly eat their prey unless they are not properly fed by their owner. When dogs eat the prey, they often prefer the stomach and intestines.