In Poland, at the end of twentieth century wolves occurred mainly in the vast forests east of the Vistula river and in the whole Carpathian Mountains. In the western part of the country wolves were very rare, despite the presence of this species' preferred habitats and abundance of food. The main reason of their absence was a huge human caused mortality. Wolves were killed by hunters and poachers, but also hit by cars on busy roads. However, after the change of a legal status from a game animal to protected species in 1998, the wolf began to resettle Western Poland. Currently these big predators gradually re-colonise forests where they were extirpated by people dozens years ago.
Since 2001 the Association for Nature “Wolf” have conducted studies on distribution, number and ecology of wolves in Western Poland. We started from detailed surveys which goal was to discover wolf presence in forests within a 100 km zone along Polish-German border. In following years we continued these surveys in all forests tracts west of the Vistula river which had been inhabited by wolves in the past, or their size and wild ungulates density were suitable for large carnivores. We have conducted our research as well in winter using snow tracking, as in vegetation seasons, searching for evidences of wolf presence on sandy and muddy forest roads. Using GPS devices we have registered tracks, faeces, scent marking, scratching, dens, lairs, rendezvous sites and remains of wolf prey. We have also collected samples from fresh scats for DNA analyses and involved trap cameras to record wolves behaviour and appearance (see the video clip with a wolf from the Lower Silesian Forest at our YouTube channel). Valuable information have been provided by local environmentalists, foresters, rangers and officers of national parks, hunters and even border guards. An interesting insight into a wolf diet gave us analysing of wolf scats. We have also gathered information about poaching and illegal killing of wolves, road causalities and depredation on livestock.
Wolf recovery in Western Poland
In 2002–2012, the wolf population increased from several to approximately 140 wolves living in 30 family groups, with an annual rate of increase of 38%. The area of permanent occurrence increased from 600 to 10,900 km2, with an average density of 1.3 wolves/100 km2. The number of wolves in groups varied from 2 to 9, and the mean group size increased from 1.8 in 2001 to 4.8 in 2012. The survival of pups from May to the end of November was 50% (the mean number of pups per litter was 5.1 and 2.5, respectively). Of 28 wolves found dead, 65% were killed by vehicles, 25% were poached, and7 % died because of diseases and natural factors. All road casualties were young wolves, most of them male (67%). The re-colonisation of WPL started from jump dispersal, which allowed wolves to establish packs in distant locations. As the recovery proceeded, the dispersal pattern shifted to being stratified, a mixture of diffusion and jump dispersal that resulted in the creation of packs in close vicinity to existing groups (see Nowak S., Mysłajek R.W. 2016. Wolf recovery and population dynamics in Western Poland, 2001–2012. Mammal Research)
Wolf diet in Western Poland
Analyses of 474 wolf faeces collected in 2002-2009 in the Wałcz Forest, the Bydgoszcz Forest, the Rzepin Forest, the Lower Silesian Forest, the Noteć Forest, the Ruda Forest, the Sława Forest and the Święty Krzyż Forest showed that the local wolves hunt primarily on wild ungulates, which made above 90% of their food biomass. Amongst their prey are mainly roe deer, red deer and wild boars. Interestingly in areas inhabited by European beavers wolves willingly hunt on them. Moreover in scats we have found remains of European hairs, fallow deer, red foxes and raccoon dogs. Amongst domestic animals we have discovered dogs and cats, but not livestock. Results of this study we have recently published (see: Nowak S., Mysłajek R.W., Kłosińska A., Gabryś G. 2011. Diet and prey selection of wolves Canis lupus recolonising Western and Central Poland. Mammalian Biology.).
The wolf population in Western Poland together with packs living in Eastern Germany has been classified as critically endangered CE by the Guidelines for Population Management Plans for Large Carnivores, which were approved by the European Commission. Despite the apparent in recent years increase in number and range of wolves in the forest complexes lying west of the Vistula river, the population is still too small and scattered to survive in isolation in the longer term. Mortality of wolves in Western Poland is significant. Its causes are, among others: intentional illegal killing by hunters, poaching focused on wild ungulates, whose victims are also wolves, accidents on roads. Wolves are also killed by numerous parasites and diseases.
For the survival of local wolf populations, the most important is the connectivity with neighbouring populations, the availability of safe places for rearing pups and daily rest of family groups, access to water, as well as the sufficient food base in the form of abundant wild ungulates. Definitely forests which are the best wolf habitats must be protected against activities leading to reduction of their surface, fragmentation and isolation. The best way to achieve these goals is protection of ecological corridors and covering the most important wolf habitats within Natura 2000 network. In 2005 for the Ministry of Environment a group of large carnivores’ scientists (including two specialists from AfN Wolf) developed a network of ecological corridors connecting Natura 2000 sites, but also the most important large carnivores’ habitats in Poland. The corridor network has been published in a book entitled “Animals and roads” and is regularly used to define conflicts with the transportation network and other investments, and to recommend suitable mitigation measures such as wildlife passages on new and upgrading roads and railways within the country (see: details here).
In Western Poland, due to a long tradition of forest management shaped by German forestry standards, Scots pine monocultures with a weak undergrowth prevail, where finding a save refuge to hide and to rear pups is difficult. Disadvantageous is also a huge pressure in vegetation season from berries and mushroom collectors, which disturb animals in the most remote areas. Therefore, wolves resettling here for their refuges often choose active or unused military training areas, which due to historical factors - the location on the edge of the former communist bloc - are numerous in Western Poland. In other places wolves also select large thickets, where foresters’ activity is weaker so far. Sandy soils occurring in these environments allows wolves to dig deep dens safe for pups and young trees growing in high density provide good cover. There are also numerous wild ungulates. All this, including access to water favours the reproductive success of wolves.
Wolf habitats and Natura 2000 sites
The wolf is a priority species under the Habitat Directive (92/43/EEC), which means that a significant percentage of its habitats should be protected within the national network of Natura 2000. In Western Poland there are several Natura 2000 sites which are inhabited by wolves. Due to our initiatives some of them, like PLH 080037 Lasy Dobrosułowskie [Dobrosułów Forests] in the Rzepin Forest or PLH 080044 Wilki nad Nysą [Wolves on Nysa river] in the Lower Silesian Forests have been recently established to protect wolf habitats. Others have been resettled by wolves last years and we have proposed to include this species into the Standard Data Forms and conservation plans of these sites.
Unfortunately military training areas inhabited by wolves are regarded by Polish society as very degraded, lacked in natural values. It causes the increasing pressure from off-road activity, which is mostly illegal. However there are several regular off-road rallies going through military training areas and existing there Natura 2000 sites which severely threaten wolf and other rare species habitats. The biggest and the most destructive is the Rallye Breslau – an extreme off-road rally which is annually, at the end of June (see details here), and where participate above 200 cars, trucks, quads and cross bikes from whole of Europe (e.g. Germany, UK, Netherland, Poland, Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Hungry, Bulgaria). For the last several years AfN Wolf acts for removing of the rally from Poland. We have partly succeeded, as this year the range of the rally have been restricted to two military areas: Drawsko (the Drawsko Forest) and Żagań (the Lower Silesian Forest), but still damages in rare habitats are huge (see details here).
Our long-term project of monitoring and protection of wolf population recovering Western Poland is supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and EuroNatur - European Nature Heritage Fund.