The most important question for many hunters and foresters is how wolves affect the number of game animals. Will less game be available for the human hunters in the long run if wolves are roaming through their hunting districts? There is no generally valid answer to this apparently simple question. Predator – prey systems are among the most complex in nature. The general rule is: predators regulate the population of their prey which in turn affects the population of the predator. The extent of the predators' impact on their prey animals depends on many factors and how these interact with each other. They include habitat, weather, food, competitors and hunting by humans just to mention some of the most important parameters. It has to be assumed for Germany too that the scenario will vary from region to region depending on the range of resident hoofed game species and the intensity of hunting by humans, forest and land management, land use, the density of the road network and recreational use.
If human hunters kill significantly fewer animals than are assumed to be the hoofed game's possible annual population increase, as is the practice in many regions of Germany, wolves will also be able to hunt in the area without any negative impact on bag numbers for hoofed game. If human hunters kill a number of animals equalling or even exceeding the possible annual population increase, the combined hunt by humans and wolves will lead to a decline in the number of hoofed game animals and result in reduced bag numbers.
An evaluation of the wolf's quantitative impact on the hoofed game population in an area that is extensively used by humans is very difficult. Only intensive, long-term field studies would allow conclusions to be drawn in this respect.
One of the most important parameters required for this purpose would be game population density. This, however, is at the same time by far the most difficult parameter to determine. In most of the habitats it can only be determined roughly. This is the reason why indirect population analysis methods such as the number and trends of the animals killed (please also refer to "Development of hunting bag data") are usually used here. At the same time, however, it should be noted that the official bag statistics alone are not suitable for deriving any conclusions with regard to the actual game population size. It has to be taken into account that bag statistics can only reflect the human hunters' success rates which are influenced by a variety of different factors. Habitat changes, different hunting strategies / motivation, weather, diseases or food supply affect the hunting success in the same "uncontrolled" way as the presence of a wolf, for example.
At the same time, such studies require details about the wolf population size, the share of the individual hoofed game species of the wolves' diet and the wolves' total annual food consumption.
Thanks to the wolf monitoring programme, the number of wolf territories (packs, pairs, resident single wolves) is known. The number of wolves living in a pack, however, cannot be determined precisely in most cases. The number of wolves in a pack normally varies between five and ten animals over the year. The food composition is determined on the basis of a food analysis and the wolves' annual food consumption can also be derived from various other studies.
The "Wölfe, Jagd und Wild in der Oberlausitz" (Wolves, hunting and game in Upper Lusatia) study by Ulrich Wotschikowsky compared the mortality of the red deer, roe deer and wild boar game species due to wolves and hunting by humans for the former Muskau Heath pack over the period between 2000 and 2005. Wolf-induced mortality accounted for 10 % of the total mortalities in red deer, 9 % in wild boar and 40 % in roe deer. The other 90 % in red deer, 91% in wild boar and 60 % in roe deer were attributable to human hunters.
Competitor or partner?
The number of hoofed game animals and especially red and roe deer fawns shot will perhaps be lower in certain areas or years. On the other hand, the wolves' selective hunting will probably have a positive effect on the health and age structure of the hoofed game populations. The wolf can be an important partner of the human hunter when it comes to hunting wild boar that can be a real nuisance in some areas. The wolf is able to follow the packs and even catch several piglets in a well-aimed attack under favourable conditions, without being limited in its hunt by the sows' night activity or their often hardly accessible retreats. It thus lies in the eye of the beholder whether the wolf is considered a competitor or a hunting partner. The current situation in Upper Lusatia can be summarised as follows: according to our current state of knowledge, the wolves' main prey is roe deer followed by red deer and wild boar. While no age or sex-related selection could so far be shown for roe deer, the wolves mainly attack young animals when it comes to red deer and wild boar. To the extent that this can be concluded from the current data, the bag numbers do not show any major decline for any of the wolf's three main prey species.
Use of hunting dogs
Some hunters fear that hunting dogs may be at risk in wolf country. This is based on examples from Sweden where between 20 and 40 hunting dogs are killed by wolves during their hunting activities every year. These are mostly hare-hounds (bracken) and elk-hounds which typically hunt in a large area and often far away from the hunter. If the dog then encounters wolves far away from its owner, the wolves will attack it as an intruder in their territory. It is seldom the case that wolves chase dogs on their own initiative.
The situation in Scandinavia, however, can only be compared to that in Germany to a certain extent as hunting with dogs is different here. Flushing dogs are normally used for a so-called "Ansitzdrückjagd" where the hunters sit on high-seats close to the main trails and known game paths and a small number of beaters and dogs move with relatively little noise through a limited area to drive the game flushed from their retreat towards the hunters. Over the last 17 years, there has not been any comparable case where a dog was injured or even killed by wolves during hunting activities in Germany. Every year driven hunts for which flushing dogs are used as described above are held in the Saxon wolf country in autumn. Wolves have often been seen during such hunts without them having been involved with dogs. On the other hand, this may be due to the fact that hitherto no dog ever chased and cornered a wolf actively during such a hunt. Furthermore, the wolves have the possibility of adapting to what is happening around them due to the dogs' barking and all the other hustle and bustle connected with the hunt, thus avoiding being suddenly surprised by a dog.
Experience shows that the presence of wolves does not imply a higher risk for hunting dogs as a general rule. Dogs are always at risk of being injured or killed during hunting activities. Every year, some hunting dogs are killed by wild boar, shot accidentally or run over by vehicles. Both the leader of a hunt and the dog handlers should take certain precautionary measures with regard to wolves. The dog handlers should be informed about the presence of wolves and the risk connected therewith before the hunt. Furthermore, some leaders of hunts in Upper Lusatia also ensure that dogs having been involved in hunting large carnivores abroad are not used for driven hunts in wolf country. Dogs should only be unleashed around 20 minutes after the drive has started. It is also recommended that the dogs be fitted with bells. The wolves thus get the chance of keeping clear of the hunting activities even before the dogs run off to flush the game.
When searching for injured game in the wolf country, it always has to be taken into account that the wolves have already found the animal and will defend this as their prey against any dogs. The more time has passed since the hunt, the higher the probability that an injured animal has been tracked down by the wolves in the meantime. Even when searching for injured animals after the hunt: human presence is the best protection for the dog. The dog handlers should only unleash their dogs when the injured animal is in sight if wolves are suspected in the area. Wolves will usually retreat when humans approach. If wolves are close to the injured or dead animal, the dog handler should refrain from frightening them away. A wolf found close to killed prey is not expected to react aggressively towards humans. Nevertheless, you should retreat from the scene and leave the animal to your "hunting colleague".
While training and handling a hunting dog, you should never encourage the dog to follow wolf tracks or sound an alert when noticing a wolf. You can thus prevent the dog from following a wolf track as it would do with a stag or wild boar track on another occasion and getting involved in a conflict.
It cannot, of course, be ruled out that dogs will eventually be attacked by wolves during hunting activities in Germany too. Road traffic and wild boar, however, are a much bigger threat to hunting dogs even in wolf country.