Wolf conservation trip with Biosphere Expeditions

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Biosphere Expeditions wolf expedition
Wolf pups at the Wolf Centre (photo Pat Smith)

Biosphere Expeditions wolf conservation

Join a wolf conservation trip with Biosphere Expeditions and you are guaranteed a break with a difference. If you love nature and the outdoors you will have a great time.  At the same time you will also be making a real contribution to research  and conservation of some of the most endangered species on the planet.

I set off this summer to join  Biosphere Expeditions on a wolf conservation project. Our mission was to help track the return of wild wolves to Lower Saxony – a state in north west Germany. Wolves, once eradicated by man here, have started to make their home in the forest region again. They have been a protected species now since 1980.

Wolf expedition
The wolf

This however is no ordinary ‘wildlife’ holiday.  Instead I joined a group of people from all over the world who all have an interest in our planet and animal conservation and became a ‘Citizen Scientist’ for a week.

What is a Citizen Scientist?

Citizen Scientists are lay people who, with a degree of training, can make a genuine contribution to wildlife research and conservation by recording information which helps to create a picture of how our animal species are faring in a world full of people. The Biosphere Expeditions wolf expedition has been able to double the data available to the official wolf monitoring programme.  From this alone it is clear that Biosphere Expeditions volunteers are making a real contribution to our understanding of this often misunderstood species.

expedition wolf
Forest fox

Wolf conservation trip – stay at the Herren Haus

Our group of twelve people met for the first time at Bremen airport and off we went to stay in the Herren-haus (manor house) at Gut Sunder (Sunder estate.) The Herren-haus was a manor house and is now a hotel and cafe run by “Lobetalarbeit” which is a non profit that integrates people with mental and physical disabilities into the labour market. The estate also has an environmental centre run by NABU, Germany’s biggest conservation NGO.

wolf expedition
Learning about the wolf

In the cosy seminar room of the Herrenhaus, we learnt the story of the wolf and about the task of managing the risks of human /animal conflict through education. Many people are wary of the ‘big bad wolf.’ Wolves are not popular with livestock owners as the predators can and do take sheep occasionally. They are not popular with hunters, either as they regard them as competition.  Electric fences and herd guarding dogs are good at keeping wolves and livestock separate and the state supports both these measures financially.  Hunters are encouraged to be part of the wolf discussion and not to fear them – conservationists need to keep everyone on board!

The team plan their route


Wolf conservation – detecting the wolf

Next we learnt how we were going to survey the region’s heaths and forest where wolves might be living. Wolves are elusive animals and they are naturally afraid of people, so we weren’t really expecting to see any but… more of that later! We learnt about the physical characteristics of the grey wolf which is the only type found in Europe. Wolves have a light coloured ‘saddle’ patch on their backs which dogs don’t have, they are long legged and their front paws are bigger than their back ones.

We also learnt how to identify wolf tracks, which is quite difficult as they look very similar to a big dog. You can distinguish them however by a particular ‘paw in paw’ trot which wolves use to cover large distances when checking out their territory.

Wolf expedition
Peter the expedition scientist

Part of the resrach work is also to look for wolf ‘scat’ which, can be be analysed to see what the wolves have been eating (mainly deer). Wolves also use their scat as a way to mark their territory, much like other animals. Through this particular activity I became familiar with the ‘great smell of wolf’ which I will never forget. It’s pretty pungent and we were all struggling with suitable adjectives to describe it!

wolf expedition
Grounds of the Herrenhaus

Biosphere Expeditions wolf conservation – setting out to search for the wolf

Setting out out in small teams to different areas we combed as much ground as possible. We were checking for signs to see if wolves had been in that particular patch.  Armed with data sheets, maps, sample collecting kits and  radios, we scoured our assigned areas. We also had a GPS device to mark our tracks and the position of any noted wolf activity.

Of course we know where we are!

The wolf migrated across from Poland in 2002. In Lower Saxony 22 family groups have been identified, but more information is needed. Some wolves have been radio collared and more information is known about them. We can track their travels – some cover huge distances.  The biggest threat to them is getting killed crossing the autobahn.

expedition wolf
Translation – here is the wolf!

Trained and ready to track!

We had our first practice session with Dr Matthias Hammer,  the founder of Biosphere Expeditions.  Matthias is a prominent biologist and conservationist. He has been able to create a real way to involve people by getting them to support efforts across the world with both their time and their money. An impressive achievement. The next day we set off with our team leaders into the forest for the first time. It is a bit like being a detective because you are constantly looking for clues – it quickly becomes an absorbing activity. Being out in this beautiful landscape, walking every day and chatting to interesting people,  is a truly rewarding way to spend your free time because you are doing something useful too.

Roe deer

At the end of each day GPS and manual data is collated, and we can see where everyone walked that day, during an end-of-day de-brief session. Each group gives feedback about what they saw and did. Teams out in the field saw roe deer, foxes, hares and birds and even a raccoon dog. And yes, some lucky people did see wolves! One group watched some wolf pups playing for quite a while. Next, our group saw a fully- grown adult standing looking at them along a sandy track. The wolf then casually trotted off into the forest in seconds.

Biosphere Expeditions wolf conservation expedition – people power

Meeting people who are passionate about their subject is always a rewarding experience. Our expedition scientist was Peter Schutte, who has worked with Biosphere Expeditions for many years. He is as good with people as he is with data, Lotte Stienberg from the Veterinary Institute of Hannover, dedicated to her wolf studies is responsible for the dietary analysis of this project. She is good fun too!  Equally important, we were also accompanied on some trips by Molly, a wildlife detection dog and her human, Leah.

Wolf expedition
Wildlife detection dog Molly at work

Sometimes we met up with wolf ‘ambassadors’ – people in the community who help to spread the word about wolves. We met Mr Einhorn (Mr Unicorn) and his hunting dog Barrack who helped us on one of our excursions; he had been a forester for 40 years!

Mr Unicorn and Barrak

Mr Unicorn took us to what I called the ‘fairytale’ forest near Ebstorf. This was a dense ancient woodland with amazing trees, fungus, strange rocks and even a Red Riding Hood cottage. If I had seen Hansel and Gretel coming around the corner I would not have been surprised in the least.

Biosphere wolf
Fairytale fungi

Everything is connected to everything

Matthias’ philosophy is ‘everything is connected to everything.’  We tend to forget this, because most people don’t live as close to nature as they once did. I found my experience on the Biosphere Expeditions trip a positive one in every aspect. It is nice to know that you are contributing your small piece to a larger jigsaw of valuable information. I highly recommend it. Biosphere Expeditions  run similar projects working with some of our most iconic species all over the world. Check out their website at Biosphere Expeditions   

Biosphere group
Our Biosphere group – top trackers!