Earlier this year, two unexpected guests crossed the sea to reach the largest of the Åland Islands, an archipelago of 6,700 mostly tiny isles between Sweden and Finland. The long, hard winter had frozen the Baltic more extensively than for many a year. A daring few among 30,000 Åland islanders drove their cars over the ice to Finland. In the other direction came two or possibly three wolves.
Europe’s most feared carnivore was first seen padding over the sea ice by a ferry passenger in February. When islanders conducted their elk census during the March snows, they found wolf tracks heading west across the main island of Åland, a uniquely autonomous region of Finland. By the start of April a wolf had been sighted. By the end of the month, two were filmed together. In June a sheep was killed with ruthless precision, its skin covered in tooth marks – the work of a wolf, said experts. A few days later, a camera trap set over a carcass captured footage of the chief suspect returning to feed.
The Eurasian wolf is marching back into western Europe. It first flourished after the Soviet Union’s collapse, slipping west into Poland, Finland and Germany and then wandering, recolonising densely populated landscapes where it had been absent for a century or more: northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. People with no memory of living alongside wolves are having to learn how to, because under European Union law the wolf is a protected species. Åland islanders exterminated their last wolf in 1883. But now they want to shoot wolves again, and they are prepared to challenge the EU to do so.
During endless summer days, these undulating islands look an improbable site for the wolves’ latest conquest. Surrounded by bright blue water, most islands are minuscule, sun-kissed skerries, where stunted pines grow from crevices in the pink granite. They contain coves of grey sand, little wooden jetties and modest red wooden summer houses. But on the largest (50km by 80km) island there are also dark spruce forests, carpeted with blueberries. And, somewhere, a wolf or two.
Most people have retired to their summer houses but a few officials remain hard at work in the government building in the Åland Islands’ tiny capital, Mariehamn.
“I am a lonely wolf here,” says Hanna Kondelin, laughing. Kondelin works for the island’s environmental agency, overseeing its plan to tackle the wolves. Islanders, she says, are almost unanimously opposed to the wolves. The naturally secretive animals are now sighted almost every day. Are the wolves seen close to homes? “It’s impossible not to be close to houses and farms because this is a small-scale place,” she says. “We don’t have big forests like they do in Sweden and Finland.” She hears islanders criticising the government for inaction but she and her colleagues have spent “many hours” drawing up a plan.
As a conservationist, Kondelin admires the EU Habitats Directive which provides legal protection for rare species, but it is now “causing us quite a lot of headaches”. The Åland Islands must adhere to EU law and are thus legally obliged to protect its wolf population. Finland has run into trouble with the EU in recent years for permitting the seasonal killing of a significant proportion of its 150-strong wolf population. And now Åland’s government wants to go further. It is proposing a system where islanders won’t require a licence before shooting a wolf. Officials say a wolf can only be shot if there is an “immediate” risk of an attack but, under its proposals, an islander could simply retrospectively claim a wolf threatened them or their livestock. “Our politicians are very much agreeing that wolves do not belong here,” says Kondelin. This autumn, she hopes Finland’s government will endorse Åland’s plan. But couldn’t this stance see the islands hauled before the European Court of Justice? “It’s even probable,” she says.
Alongside Kondelin is Robin Juslin, a bright young civil servant who heads up the island’s hunting unit. “In almost every household there is a hunter,” says Juslin. “It’s part of the subsistence lifestyle here that you rear your own meat and you hunt and fish.” But the European Commission took the islanders to court over Åland’s spring shoot of 2,000 male eider ducks. Despite the court case, the islanders have restarted the spring shoot, and their dispute with the EU continues. “People thought that the Commission would change their attitudes after Brexit and be more considered about local opinions, but it doesn’t seem that way,” says Juslin. “Now people in Åland are saying ‘exit’. It comes up a lot in the wolf discussion. People in general favour the idea of the EU but the EU can’t take into account the fact that we have had these strong traditions for hundreds of years, and haven’t exterminated the bird population. They can’t trust us to manage our own birds and wolves.”
Juslin was visiting Denmark earlier this year when a video emerged of a wolf being illegally shot there. The Danish authorities, he says, “have the same problems as everywhere else. Their government is controlled by the EU and can’t do everything the way that they want. And they can’t get local acceptance for the wolf.”
Beyond the tranquillity of Mariehamn, the islands stretch peacefully for miles. Pine forests grow on thick carpets of pale lichens; pine cones scattered on pink stone highways are undisturbed by cars. Small fields are squeezed between rocky outcrops; potatoes grow well in the sandy, grey soil.
Åland is a singular place. Islanders speak Swedish but in 1921 the League of Nations decided it would be part of Finland. Despite ties to Finland, Åland has its own stamps, its own internet domain (.ax) and its own flag, as well as more sunshine hours than anywhere else in northern Europe, a vineyard, a crisp factory and no McDonald’s. It’s within the EU but outside its tax border, and its economy is dependent on duty-free ferries. I take the ferry and people are drinking before 8am. Disco dancing starts at 11am. Many visitors to Åland only see the ferry terminal before hopping on the next ferry back to Sweden or Finland.
Åland’s villages are little more than family farms. House martins dip over meadows beside pretty wooden windmills. By a big red barn, beside several long-dead Skodas half-buried in undergrowth, Berit Sjöberg’s five sheepdogs lie obediently on the track. Sjöberg runs an organic farm with 80 ewes. This is her daily routine now: bringing her sheep from pasture to barn each evening because of the wolves. Like everywhere in northern Europe, small farms are going out of business or being agglomerated into large farms. Is it harder to make a living than 20 years ago? “Twenty years!” exclaims Sjöberg. “It’s harder than last year.” This is her toughest season in farming: the grass hasn’t grown during the north European drought, and now there are the wolves. “I take the sheep inside every evening and put them out every morning. I thought it would be OK but I am quite tired. The sheep must be tired of this wolf situation too, because they are getting slower and slower every day. Only the dogs are happy.”
What do islanders think about wolves? Sjöberg puts her forefinger across her throat in a slitting motion. “People who like the wolves and would like to have them will say that Åland is not the best place for the wolves,” she says. Conservationists argue that people will tolerate these carnivores if governments fund more shepherding, deterrents (such as big dogs) and wolf-proof electric fencing. But Åland’s rocky terrain gives it paddocks that are small, wild and unfenceable. Ultimately, even if the government provides compensation for wolf kills, Sjöberg argues it never covers the cost of raising the sheep, or the value of its bloodline, or lost future productivity.
The wolf has been within 100 metres of Sjöberg’s farm. “I don’t believe he will wait there and not take my sheep,” she says. Can’t people learn to live alongside wolves, as they did in the past? “Yes, maybe there were more predators in the past but there are more people now. We have to save the forest for the wolf but we can’t have the wolf living like this, beside us.”
Near the village of Samuelstorp, where a wolf killed a sheep, Börje Jansson is tidying his open-sided wooden barn. “I don’t think the wolf belongs to Åland. It’s too small,” he says. What should islanders do? His wife, Riitta, standing with their four-year-old grandson, is forthright. “Shoot them,” she says. “We haven’t got the space. There is a house every 500m. There are no wild areas. I am scared when my grandchild is here and they attack our neighbour’s sheep.” She thinks the wolf was here the previous day. “Suddenly our two horses became uneasy. It must’ve been something, and then we had to take them in.”
The problem, say the Janssons, is that the EU’s rules are too broad for small and unusual places such as Åland. “They can’t make a rule and include every country because we’re all so different, with different circumstances,” says Riitta. “When the shooting season here starts in the autumn, if the wolves come, they are going to shoot it.”
Börje makes a grave face. “It would then be murder,” he says. “We can go to prison!” exclaims Riitta, eyes wide at what she sees as the ridiculousness of this situation.
Is anyone in favour of the wolf? “No, I don’t think so,” Börje smiles. “In Helsinki, maybe.”
Opposition to the Åland Islands’ determination to shoot their wolves has indeed come from conservationists in Helsinki. “There should be space for wolves on Åland, there are lots of roe deer for them,” says Sami Säynevirta of Luonto-Liitto, a Finnish wildlife charity. “Killing a wolf should be a last resort. They should try other alternatives, like trying to scare a wolf away or building an electric fence. There should not be any exceptions for the Åland Islands.” Säynevirta suggests relocating the Åland wolves, ideally to Sweden, where ecologists are concerned that its wolf population is becoming inbred because the wolves’ route from Finland to Sweden is blocked by Lapland. There are no wolves in Lapland because they are shot to protect reindeer-herding in the region.
According to Guillaume Chapron, associate professor in ecology at Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences, our notion of the wolf as an icon of wilderness and best-suited to wild areas is profoundly wrong. “The reason we say the wolf is a creature of wilderness is that the only place where we couldn’t easily eradicate them was in the wilderness. That was the only place they could survive. Then we made the emotional association – wolf equals wilderness. This artificially restricts the wolf, keeping it in areas where there are no people.”
In fact, says Chapron, we should consider the wolf to be like a carnivorous roe deer, or a big fox – it’s an adaptable species that lives everywhere from Israeli deserts to the high Arctic. Wolf territories are dependent on food supply and the 750sq km of the Åland Islands might be big enough for a few territories, according to Chapron. “At the same time, I don’t want to be more royalist than the king,” he says. “If there were no people on these islands, we would have some wolves but would we really have more than two or three inbred packs? From an ecological point of view, it’s difficult to imagine a thriving Åland wolf population. The future of the wolf here is probably regular solitary animals passing by in the winter.”
Chapron believes the relevance of Åland’s struggle with the wolf is not whether its newcomers survive or are slaughtered but whether the islanders’ approach becomes a template for the rest of Europe. Increasingly, he says, there is an assumption that predator populations have gone “too far” and proactive measures must be taken before wolves damage our best economic interests. Germany’s new coalition agreement includes a provision to ask the European Commission to review the protection of the wolf and bring about a “necessary” population reduction. “We don’t want ideas from Åland recolonising Europe,” says Chapron. “I don’t see why we need to reduce the population size of the wolf. We are stuck on a very low baseline. We almost eradicated the wolf and now there’s a modest recovery. Finally, we have a conservation success – predators are back. What’s the first thing the politicians start to talk about? Reduce the population.”
Every islander I meet says the same thing: Åland is too small for the wolf. I’m sure I won’t find a single pro-wolf islander. Finally, I reach the Åland Hunting and Fishing Museum near the faded wooden fishing sheds of Käringsund. Inside stands an enormous taxidermised elk, a wall of taxidermised eider ducks and a taxidermised wolf, commemorating the last beast shot on the islands. There’s a net, too, that shows how the wolves were hunted to extinction here: a big hole was dug in the ground and covered by the net before a gang of islanders harried the wolves towards their trap.
“I think it’s really interesting to find that people are still so afraid of the wolf, even though islanders haven’t met them since 1883,” says the museum manager, Åsa Hägg. Amazingly, in this sea of dead animals, I find a wolf enthusiast. “That’s because I’m a biologist,” says Hägg. “I think it’s good that we get new species. Of course there are a lot of sheep farmers and I can understand their fear, getting sheep killed by the wolf.”
The last Åland lynx was shot in 1910 but in 2012 lynx were seen again on the island; a few now appear to be living here, preying on the island’s thriving population of introduced wild roe deer. “When the lynx came back, it was, ‘Oh God, it is going to kill all the roe deer,’” says Hägg. “Now with the wolves it’s, ‘Oh God, it is going to kill all the sheep.’” She wonders whether her fellow islanders might live alongside wolves as Alaskans live alongside wolves and bears. But she fears they won’t.
“I don’t think a wolf population is possible with the farmers here,” she says. “I have noticed the more we urbanise, the further we get from nature and the forest. In the past, they lived closer to nature and they knew it better. When we don’t have knowledge about nature and the forest and the animals, we get more afraid.”
The wolf’s progress: five more countries where the wolf is making a comeback
Germany There was broad public acceptance for Germany’s burgeoning wolf population after a public education programme for children and the introduction of ‘wolf commissioners’ who provided farmers with electric fences and guard dogs. But the latest coalition agreement includes a pledge to regulate the wolf population – currently against EU policy.
Denmark A wolf pack arrived in Denmark for the first time in more than 200 years in 2017 when a young female wolf padded 500km from Germany. But one wolf was illegally shot dead last May.
Belgium The last mainland European country to have no wild wolves finally recorded a wolf in January this year when Naya, a female from Germany, reached Flanders via The Netherlands.
UK Britain’s last wolf was officially killed in 1680 in Killiecrankie, but one hunter claimed to see a Highland wolf in 1888. Rewilders want to reintroduce them; farmers and most landowners are fiercely opposed. An exception is Paul Lister of Alladale wilderness reserve in the Highlands. He hopes to release wolves into a fenced area of 50,000 acres.
USA After a 70-year absence, 41 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park in 1995-7. By 2015, there were more than 500 in the greater Yellowstone area. A popular video credits wolves with reshaping rivers, but scientists say wolves’ ‘ecosystem engineering’ is not quite so simple.