In the United Kingdom it would take an act by humans to reintroduce animals that have become locally extinct. This is due to the English Channel, it is not possible for an animal to wander across the border. In theory wolves and potentially bears are capable of swimming the channel, but Normandy and Brittany are some of the least wild parts of France and so are unlikely to ever have significant populations of the predators. This means that we in the UK have a requirement to decide if we wish to reintroduce predators, which do not exist elsewhere. I have discussed this in depth in other articles. What I wish to talk about here, is the natural spread of predators back across Europe since the 1970 when increasing numbers of people moved to cities, leaving behind spaces to be filled.As many of these species have only been lost in relatively recent times, there have often been intentional translocations that have boosted this natural migration.
Before I go into how each species has recovered, I am going to look at how the animals were doing back in 1970. I am starting in this article with Wolves.
The European wolf population is divided into a number of groups and these have fared differently depending on where they are based.
The Scandinavian wolf population was probably extinct by the 1960s but in the 1980s a pack appeared. It is thought that a breeding pair travelled 1000km from Finland to start this pack. Unfortunately one pair does not give enough genetic variability to allow a healthy population long-term. As such this population did not grow very much. However in 1991 a lone male made its way into the area as well, and this added genetic variability and ended the bottle neck. Now there are around 100 wolves across Scandinavia and around 10 breeding packs. These wolves are controlled by culling and there has been some concern that the number set is too low. Hunting is popular in this area and so natural wolf behaviour can economically affect land owners.
The Karelian wolf population is enclosed in Finland (where the founding members of the Scandinavian population came from). This population was systematically exterminated and in 1880 it is thought that there were no more remaining. Just across the border however, there is a huge population of Russian wolves. At the current time, it is thought that there are around 250 wolves in this population, though this is in dispute. Poaching kills around 20% of the population each year, which in a slower breeding species would mean extinction. Still this high mortality rate is not good, and without wolves crossing from Russia, may well spell the eventual end of the population.
The Baltic wolf population is similar to the Finnish population, in that it is contagious with the Russian population, so at the current time the numbers are pretty stable though have climbed from a low in recent decades.
Central European Lowland covers western Poland and eastern Germany. This population is small and fragmented. They were gone from Germany at the end of the 19th century, but in the late 20th century conservation efforts in Poland saw the population begin to grow, and so they started spreading out. Shortly before 2000 they crossed over into Germany and had pups shortly after. They rapidly settled into their former home, and by 2016 there was at least 47 packs and 21 pairs with about 130 wolves in total. There has been anger about their reappearance, and discussion about culling, but it is recognised (thanks to good education) that killing wolves will only lead to more coming in from the east. Learning to live alongside them, and using simple preventative measures appears to be working reasonably well.
Carpathian wolf population covers all the wolves living in the region of the Carpathian mountain range. This is a substantial population and one of the few that was never significantly depleted.
Dinarac-Balklans wolf population is another of the highly stable populations.
Italian wolf population (Apennine) reached a minimum in the seventies of only 70-100 individuals. Thankfully since then they have done well, with a survey in 2005 estimating around 500 individuals, and in 2016 between 1200 and 1800. It is also expansion of the wolf territory here that has restocked France and Switzerland.
The Alpine population is based in France, and is thought to have been founded by around 8-16 individuals migrating north some time in the 1992. It has been shown that 1-2 further wolves migrated north in each generation. However the narrow migration corridor means that these two populations should be treated separately. As with all wolves, they live at low densities with each pack having a territory of roughly 300 square km. From its small founding group this population has grown fast. It is thought to number 350 at the current time, with the expectation that this will grow to around 500 by 2023. Around 40 were killed late last year, and a further 10% from this year on, though wolves attacking livestock may be killed. While there is only a permanent breeding population within the alps, individual wolves have been seen as far away as the Central Massif (in the centre of France) and as they can cover huge distances a night this could change very quickly. There is also a small population of wolves in the Pyrenees.
There is a tiny population that live in Sierra Morena. This population is perhaps numbered only 50 animals, and are isolated from any other wolf populations at the moment, and this is unlikely to change any time soon, though it may at some future point merge with the Iberian population.
The final population is the Iberian population. This population was last counted accurately a few years ago, but at that point it was found to contain around 2000 wolves. Until 1900 the wolf was found throughout the Iberian peninsula, however a government extermination program in the 50s and 60s wiped them out apart from in the north west part of the country. The big stronghold of the Iberian wolf was a hunting reserve called the Sierra de la Culebra. Although it was a hunting reserve, the hunting permits were raffled out to locals each year. As a result of this, the locals are very defensive of their wolves and the population have spread out to cover more of north west Spain. The Sierra de Culebra is still a hunting reserve covering around 80 square km. It has perhaps the highest density of wolves with around 80. It is worth a visit, I will put a review up in the national parks section.