In an extract from her latest book ‘Abundance: Nature in Recovery’ — a collection of essays exploring abundance and loss in the natural world, just-published by Bloomsbury Wildlife — Karen Lloyd takes to Dutch woodland, hoping to cross paths with a wolf.
The morning after the symposium, I’m walking in the Veluwe National Park with ‘Wolves in the Netherlands’ volunteers Carolien Koldyk and Jaap van Leeuwen. It’s so early that the sun is still low to the horizon, and when we walk through forest clearings, the streaming light obscures my vision.The project knows that the first pack of returned wolves have produced a litter of cubs in the forest here this summer. I’m excited. I want to see a wolf, of course I do, but the previous evening, Ellen’s response to my question of how likely this would be had brought me crashing down to earth.
‘We don’t go out looking for wolves,’ she’d told me. ‘It’s not a zoo. The wolves have to be allowed to get on with being wolves. We have to give them their privacy and respect that they don’t want to be disturbed.’
Most sightings of wolves in the Netherlands are unanticipated, made by unsuspecting members of the public. Sometimes they upload their clips to YouTube, showing wolves travelling outside the anticipated sphere of the wolf – the one near the corner shop and the one running past the gardens in Bennekom. One of the wolf volunteers (oh, how I long to be a wolf volunteer), a woman of my own age called Anne – and who, like me, had grown-up kids – lived in the Veluwe with her forester husband. When she had gone out to her car one morning, she had found scraps of wild boar skin and hair on the lane outside their property and a bloody trail leading back between the trees.
In the Veluwe, the forest cover is uncompromisingly thick. The day begins to warm and I’m glad to have left my jacket in the car. We are looking for wolf scat, hair samples, footprints, and to do this, we walk on sandy paths, Jaap navigating with GPS. Jaap has an endpoint in mind – a dew pond some kilometres away, where he’d recently installed a motion-activated camera. Some of the forest paths are blocked with simple wooden barriers.
‘We can’t go this way,’ he’d say, pointing at the sign. ‘It’s a “Wildlife Resting Area”.’
I like this idea of providing space for wildlife to live undisturbed. In the small islands of the British archipelago, isn’t that another fundamental problem we have also yet to engage with: our right, our demand, to have access everywhere?
Carolien tells me of a plan she is developing with another volunteer, a woman who visits farmers to talk about wolves and sheep and fences – and installs them, if necessary. The two women have found a site where they plan to open the first wolf-rehabilitation centre – in an abandoned golf club. Now there’s a cultural shift for you.
We find a red deer wallow and pause to investigate. It’s just a damp, muddy depression off to one side of the path, and there are plenty of deer prints.
‘If you come across a wallow just after the stags have been,’ Jaap said, ‘you really know it; they stink to heaven!’
‘Red deer love potion,’ I replied.
We walk through the forest and along its edge adjacent to open meadows of golden grasses. At the side of one particular meadow Jaap tells me this is where, when he’d not been looking for wolves, he’d happened upon the first new-generation family. He takes out his phone and plays the film. He says there were three young wolves in the meadow.
‘Wait a minute; you’ll see them.’
In the clip, three female red deer saunter through the meadow. Something has clearly caught their attention. Then the heads of three young wolves emerge from the grass. The young wolves stand up, intrigued by the deer. Or should that be electrified by? One of the wolves moves as though to follow, then thinks better of it. The deer keep walking and looking at the young wolves, their demeanour saying simply: ‘At your age and size, you have no chance, mate.’
It’s getting hotter now. I let the others carry on as I crouch down to retie my bootlace, and when I’ve done it, something catches my eye. Out in another shady meadow and walking sedately towards the next bank of forest is an animal. It is grey and sandy, and it keeps moving towards the trees, and I think ‘that is not a deer’. It moves all wrong to be a deer. The sunlight streams into my eyes and my fringe falls across them, and I can’t be sure, but then I am sure because deer just don’t move like that and this animal is, well, like a large dog. And then it’s gone. I try calling in a stage whisper to the others, but they don’t hear so I pick myself up and run to catch them up, and when I tell them what I’ve just seen they shrug calmly and Jaap says: ‘Yes, it’s very possible – that’s another wildlife resting area.’ There’s no fuss. No excitement. Just: yes, that’s possible.
Once they’d been given protected status by the EU in 1992, wolves began their exponential return through Europe. In the same year, they began to travel out from Italy and crossed the Alps into France. At the turn of the twenty-first century, they began to walk out from Poland and into Germany. For the first time in more than 200 years, wolves were seen in Denmark. Increasing numbers of abandoned farms across depopulating areas of Europe provided wolf habitat and plenty of food in the shape of deer. In Germany, military training areas unwittingly provided stepping stones from one habitat to another. (I came across one photograph of a wolf pup scrutinising an advancing tank.) Wolves were seen seen walking along the suburban avenues of German cities. The wolf was beginning to slip out of oblivion.
‘Abundance: Nature in Recovery’ is out now and available here (£15.79).
Karen Lloyd will be launching ‘Abundance’ at an online event with Sam Reads Bookshop this weekend. More info and tickets available here.