17,000 pairs of big eyes. 17,000 pairs of big ears. 17,000 sets of big teeth. With thousands of wolves now roaming continental Europe, Little Red Riding Hood better watch out.

Image: European Commission

After years of persecution and hunting, the European wolf population is on the rise. Packs have been roaming the Carpathian and Balkan regions, in countries including Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Albania and Serbia, for some years now. Paying little heed to land borders, they are now expanding their territory into countries that haven’t been home to wolves for years.

In Switzerland the last wolf had been killed at the end of the 19th century. But a few years back a pack crossed into the French-Italian Alps, and are fanning out in Switzerland. There are now four wolf packs in the country, according to the Swiss Wolf Group, and that number is likely to grow. They have been spotted several times in the Zurich region.

Image: European Commission

Switzerland isn’t actively seeking to re-introduce wolves, but will welcome and protect any that migrate into its national parks. But not everyone is happy with the return of the large carnivores.

All the better to eat you with?

For some years, farmers in the areas being recolonised have been calling for rules to be relaxed. They currently prevent problem animals from being hunted unless they kill at least 25 livestock in a month. Inhabitants in the south-west region of Valais, where wolves have attacked hundreds of sheep, are particularly vocal. The Swiss parliament voted earlier this month to loosen the hunting laws that regulate certain protected species.

In the past, individual animals have been hunted and killed with permission but parliament has backed away from allowing all wolves to be hunted.

Conservation groups have been dismayed by calls for culling, arguing there are too few wolves to cause a real threat. They are also against giving each of Switzerland’s administrative regions the power to decide how to control populations, which they believe will fail to protect migrating predators.

Image: Wildlife Comeback in Europe

Recreating wilderness

Conflict between humans and wildlife living in close proximity is nothing new. Some conservationists would like to see large parts of Europe ‘re-wilded’, with lynxes, bears, wolves, deer, bison and ibex being reintroduced and supported. A number of pilot projects are being run around Europe, supported by conservation organizations like the WWF.

Landowners meanwhile, who face threats to livestock, are less convinced. And there is also concern about the impact of large predators and humans living nearby.

Image: Wildlife Comeback in Europe

As with many places around the world, biodiversity is a concern in Switzerland. The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment blames urban sprawl, intensive land use, heavy use of agricultural fertilizers and chemicals, and invasion of alien species for the fact over half of habitats and native species are vulnerable or near threatened.

But with a bear last year paying an unexpected visit to some Swiss skiers, it seems Red Riding Hood needs to also warn Goldilocks.