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Profile

Characteristics

Wolf (Canis lupus)

A shy returner: The wolf in the Surselva. Near Pigniu, 2006 © Peter A. Dettling
  • Appearance: In stature and appearance similar to a German Shepherd, but with longer legs, more slender body, slightly shorter tail and ears that are shorter and more rounded. Appears more slender in summer than in winter due to the shorter summer fur. The fur is grey/beige with a pale face mask. In North America, white and black variations occur, too.
  • Size: in Central Europe, body length 130–150 cm, shoulder height 65–80 cm.
  • Weight: in Central Europe approx. 30 kg, varies widely with subspecies (up to 80 kg).
  • Life expectancy: up to 12 years in the wild

Status and threats

Legal status:

  • Swiss hunting law (Jagdgesetz, JSG, SR 922.0) (DE, FR, IT): protected
  • Swiss hunting ordinance (Jagdverordnung, JSV, SR 922.01) (DE, FR, IT): regulates the exceptions (see enforcement aid: Swiss wolf concept; DE, FR, IT)
  • Bern Convention: Appendix II (strictly protected animal species)
  • EU Habitats Directive: Annex IV (strict protection)
  • CITES: Appendix II
  • Conservation status CH: Endangered (expert opinion); species with medium national priority

Red List of Endangered species:

The biggest threats for wolves in Switzerland consist of legal and illegal killings, as well as traffic collisions (mainly with cars, sometimes also with trains).

Spatial & Social structure

A wolf is standing in a flower meadow. Its fur is short except at the neck, where the hair is still long.
Wolf changing from winter fur to summer fur in the Calanda area. © Charly Gurt.

Wolves are very adaptable. Globally, they occur in the arctic tundra, in forests, steppes, deserts and even in regions with large amounts of urban sprawl. In Switzerland, they are found mainly in the forested areas within the Alps and pre-Alps and in the Jura mountains. For the raising of young ones, they require largely undisturbed retreat areas. In Switzerland, there are also several wolf observations in the cultural landscape and some from within settled areas.

Wolves are social animals and live in family units, so called packs. In the Alps, home range sizes are approx. 50–300 km². The pack defends their home range against other wolves. Their strong territoriality leads to a distribution of relatively few wolves over a large area. The size of the home range depends on the available prey density. The home range must be big enough to enable them to catch enough prey every year to raise their pups. The smaller the prey availability in an area, the larger a home range must be. First results of wolves with radio collars also showed that relatively undisturbed retreat areas in the intensively used cultural landscape are important for the location and size of home ranges.

In Europe the average pack size is about 5 animals. The number of wolves in a pack changes seasonally. Around April or May, 3–9 pups are born. The remaining subadult individuals from previous litters help with rearing new pups. Young wolves generally leave the pack at an age of 10–22 months, in search of a partner and an own home range. However, some stay in the pack for up to 3 years. There are records of wolves from other packs being accepted into an existing pack.

Reproduction

Five wolf pups playing together at the edge of the forest.
Pups of the Beverin pack 2019 © Hans Garmann, AJF

Contrary to domestic dogs, female wolves come into heat only once a year. The mating season can vary regionally but occurs between January and March. After a gestation period of about 63 days, 3–9 blind young are born. Usually, only the territorial female gives birth to pups. Wolves turn sexually mature at an age of 22 months. A pack consists generally of animals from different years. It can happen that one of the remaining daughters in the pack gives birth too. More than one litter per year from the same female can occur, especially under the influence of targeted hunting by humans or in the case of an especially rich prey base. All pack members are involved in raising the pups; nevertheless, the mortality rate at an early age is high. At the age of three months, the pups are taken to protected shelters called ‘rendezvous sites’ where they are left behind while the adults hunt. The pups start following the pack in autumn. Between the age of 10 months and 2 years, most young disperse to form their own pack. If they cannot find suitable habitat nearby, they can travel long distances (up to 1,500 km). During their dispersal, the young wolves often become victims of traffic collisions.

Diet

The wolf hunts mainly by coursing then chasing down its prey, opportunistically pursuing whatever prey it may encounter. This behaviour makes sense since hunting attempts often fail, and it may be a long time between kills. The wolf cannot afford to miss a chance to make a kill, but it also means that fleeing animals repeatedly trigger the hunting instinct of the wolf. For example in a sheep pasture the wolf kills more than it can eat.

Wolves mainly prey on ungulates, but are very adaptable in their choice of prey. This may also vary seasonally, e.g. during the breeding season. They usually catch young, old or sick animals. In Central Europe wolves primarily hunt red deer, roe deer, chamois and in southern Europe also wild boar. In North America for example, wolves prey mainly on elk, caribou, moose, deer or bison. When ungulates are not available or plentiful, wolves hunt smaller prey such as rabbits or even salmon. Occasionally they kill golden jackals, foxes, livestock and small rodents or feed on carrion. Wolves are able to carry large amounts of food in their stomachs, especially when rearing pups. They regurgitate the food to feed the pups. Nevertheless, they can also live several days without food.

History in Switzerland

A shot wolf lies on two boards on the ground in the grass.
On 9 September 1954, a hunter shot this female wolf in Val Poschiavo. Photographer unknown, 1954. © Museo Poschiavo

In the late 19th century the wolf was eradicated from Switzerland and from large parts of Europe. Due to overhunting, many ungulate populations had become scarce by this time. This lack of prey lead to an increase in wolf attacks on livestock which exacerbated the conflict with humans. Wolves were systematically shot, trapped and poisoned. In Italy, Spain, eastern and northern Europe, small local populations survived. When the wolf was declared protected in Italy in 1971 only about one hundred animals were living in the central-southern Apennines. Due to a lack of wild prey, they fed on domestic animals and even rubbish. Individual wolves arrived in Switzerland in the middle of the 20th century. They were most likely long-distance dispersers like others that have been recorded more recently. The study of Dufresnes et al. 2019 determined the probable origin of some few wolves (male at Eischoll, VS, 27.11.1947, and female at Poschiavo, GR, 09.09.1954) to be the original Alpine population, from which a few wolves had survived. Due to its protected status and the simultaneous increase in wild prey animals, the wolf population could recover and was able to spread further into the Alps region. In 1995 the first wolves migrated from Italy to Switzerland. However, the formation of the first pack only occurred in 2012.

Humans and wolf

A prince and a girl ride on a wolf through the forest.
Illustration of the fairy tale ‘Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf’, in which a wolf helps the hero to victory. In the myths of the East, the wolf often plays a positive role. In the Russian fairy tale “Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf”, the wolf first eats the horse of the hero. Then wolf and hero team up and defeat their enemies thanks to their collective strength. © Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov

The wolf is the subject of many tales, legends and myths. Its symbolic interpretation varies among cultures. Among some hunter-gatherer societies it was considered in a positive way, as opposed to Western culture, where the negative image of the “big bad wolf” as a threat to humans and livestock prevails.

In reality the wolf is a shy animal and attacks on humans are extremely rare. However, conflicts arise from attacks on livestock, especially sheep in the case of the European wolf.  To manage this potential threat in Switzerland, the Swiss wolf concept (DE, FR, IT) was developed:  if a wolf takes 35 sheep in four months or 25 sheep in one month, then the inter-cantonal committee consisting of cantonal authorities from the affected compartment and the FOEN make decisions on management actions and a shooting permit may be issued. These actions only take place if the lost livestock was protected by adequate herd protection measures.

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