Jan Gouwy is showing us how to track wolves.
The researcher from the Flemish Institute for Nature and Forestry Research (INBO) takes us along a country path in the eastern Belgian province of Limburg.
It isn’t long before he spots a wolf print that most of us would never notice. The front paw track, slightly crushed in the mud, is probably only a few days old.
For the first time in more than 100 years, small numbers of these predators have begun to settle here.
Wolves were once widely hunted in Europe. Local folklore says that, before their recent return, the last wolf in Belgium was killed by the nation’s king Leopold II in the 1890s.
Estimates vary, but there are currently thought to be 15 to 20 wolves in the country, with one pack in Flanders plus another in southern Wallonia, plus a newly established pair.
The numbers are much higher, for example, in neighboring France and Germany, where hundreds of predators are now thought to live. Meanwhile, the UK government has ruled out the reintroduction of wolves.
It is part of a wider expansion in Europe that is causing alarm in some communities, while being welcomed by environmentalists.
But the rebirth of this animal, while not due to a single factor, is certainly not a simple act of nature.
“The reason they came back is mainly for legal protection,” says Jan.
The protection of wolves was introduced by the Berne Convention and the subsequent 1992 EU Habitats Directive. This prohibited the deliberate capture or killing of a wolf, with some exceptions.
“Since the early 1990s, a lot has happened in Europe and the wolf has really started dispersing across the continent,” Jan explains.
A September 2022 Europe-wide assessment said that, ‘after a severe decline in the first half of the 20th century’, the best available data now suggest that ‘the total number of wolves in the 27 EU member states is likely to be in l order of 19,000″.
Jan sees the remains of the wolf’s feces which, after the rain, now consist mainly of the hair of his prey.
Dietary analysis of the area found that wolves mainly eat roe deer and wild boar.
But about 15% of their diet is livestock. This is something local sheep farmer Johan Schouteden knows well.
“The wolf is always in our thoughts,” he tells me as we stand in a light drizzle in a field where his sheep graze, surrounded by an electric fence.
“We can use more wire, use more sticks. There is no such thing as a wolf-proof fence. The wolf is so smart that it climbs over any fence.”
Dozens of his sheep, he says, have been killed since wolves began reappearing in this part of Belgium in 2018.
The situation has sparked protests in recent years, with 3,000 locals joining a demonstration in 2021.
Johan has photos of his dead cattle, but many are too graphic to publish.
There is compensation for lost animals and money for the electric fence, but Johan says this doesn’t cover the true cost.
“I want to live with the wolf,” she says. “If we get paid for all the extra work and all the extra work we have to do.”
Others are advocating for more radical countermeasures, with some EU lawmakers recently voting for a downgrade of the wolf’s protected status.
It was a non-binding resolution but those in favor argue that the population cannot be allowed to grow without stricter controls.
In Sweden, 57 wolves were killed between January and February in a government-sanctioned cull. Opponents questioned the legality of the culling.
The matter also gained new attention when Dolly, a pony belonging to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, was killed by a wolf in Germany last year.
The wolf – whose official name is GW950m – has now been cleared for execution as it was linked to repeated attacks. A Commission assessment of the wider situation is not expected to see the 1992 Habitats Directive reopened, but rather to explore existing flexibilities.
Back on the trail in Belgium with Jan Gouwy, he says that, after more than a century without wolves, it’s no surprise that their return has sparked some “panic”.
“People have to adapt their behavior. They have to build solid fences. If they do that, it’s perfectly possible to coexist with wolves.”
But, I ask Jan, what is positive about the resurgence of wolves in Europe?
He says predators help quell levels of disease because they prey on the sick and the young – and he answers his own question.
“You have to ask yourself if it all has to have a positive effect on how we see it as human beings,” he says.
“Maybe some animals just have a right to exist, not just because we find them useful.”
We see no wolves on our Limburg walk, although you can spot signs of them with the help of a trained eye.
Those footprints mark the silent return of this predator and the beginning of a rekindled human clash with nature.