A survey conducted by Eurogroup for Animals and other animal welfare NGOs in 10 EU member states shows that most rural residents believe that animals such as wolves, lynxes and bears should remain strictly protected in the EU and have the right to co-exist with humans.
The survey was conducted in Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Romania. It aimed to explore the attitudes and perceptions of 1000 people in rural communities in each country towards large carnivores and hunting practices.
A significant 66 per cent of respondents said that decision-makers, including EU institutions, should prioritise the conservation of large carnivores. Sixty-five per cent said that individual problematic large carnivores should only be killed if it can be proven that adequate conservation measures have been implemented and failed.
The survey identified protecting the environment for future generations ( 80 per cent) and preserving biodiversity ( 78 per cent) as important priorities for the EU.
Only 32 per cent of respondents said that large carnivores in their area made them feel unsafe, while 27 per cent had no opinion. Sixty-two per cent said they would feel safer if they understood how wolves and bears behave and how to deter them in case of an encounter.
The responses from Belgian participants are generally in line with the average responses. The country is one of the most supportive member states for the strict protection status of large carnivores (73 per cent). Some 75 per cent agree that large carnivores have the right to exist in the EU.
In addition, 44 per cent of respondents said they feel unsafe going out during the hunting season. Although hunting and farming interest groups often influence wildlife management, rural communities generally do not feel represented by such interest groups. Only 18 per cent of respondents feel adequately represented by farming interest groups, and 12 per cent by hunting interest groups.
Endangered species such as wolves, bears and lynxes are protected under the EU’s Habitats Directive. Still, Sweden continues to violate the directive by prioritising the interests of the country’s hunting community.
According to a survey by the Sint Hubertus Vereniging Vlaanderen, hunters in Flanders generally do not favour the wolf either. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents have a negative view of the wolf’s return. Twenty-seven per cent are neutral, and only 14 per cent welcome the large carnivores. Sixty-nine per cent of the respondents think that the wolf has been reintroduced in Flanders, and 65 per cent believe it cannot add value to Belgian nature.
Illegal practices in Flanders
Earlier this week, the Flemish public broadcaster revealed that hunters are releasing animals, especially ducks and pheasants, even though this practice has been banned for 30 years. Six hunting groups – known as wildlife management units – have been banned from hunting this year because one of their members was caught releasing animals.
Biologist Frederik Thoelen told VRT that there are several reasons why releasing animals is prohibited. “It can be detrimental to biodiversity,” he said. Having many of the same animals in a small area can disrupt the ecosystem of plants and animals. If they are released into the water, their large amounts of faeces also pose a problem for water quality.
There’s also the problem of genetic pollution. When captive animals mate with wild animals, their offspring aren’t always able to survive in the wild. The farmed animals are also often given antibiotics as a preventative measure. “And you don’t want those antibiotics getting into the wild for no reason,” said Thoelen. Finally, it is ethically questionable to release a large group of animals for the sole purpose of shooting them later on.