Should wolves be protected on Swiss soil? A referendum that divides a neutral country.

Environment | Forests

By Julia Riopelle, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Published March 1, 2021

On the 27 November 2020, 51.9 per cent of Swiss voters voted ‘No’ in a referendum revising the Swiss Hunting Act of 1986. In Switzerland, wolves will continue to be a nationally protected species.

Prior to 1986, wolves were extinct in Switzerland for 25 years, as a result of a campaign to wipe out the species across central Europe. This was due to misconceived fear surrounding the animal and a long-term conflict between wolves and farmers. In efforts to reintroduce the species, the Hunting Act of 1986 was passed and remains in place to this day, only allowing the hunting of a lone wolf if it attacks at least 25 sheep in one month or 35 sheep across four months.

Current locations of established wolf packs and lone wolf sightings in Switzerland. | Julia Riopelle / The Kingfisher

Switzerland has seen a successful return of the apex predator, crossing over from the French-Italian Alps and even travelling as far as from the Czech Republic. They have mostly settled in the Southeast of the small country, in the cantons of Graubünden, Glarus, St. Gallen, Ticino and Wallis. There have been a few sightings in the more central regions of Bern and Schwyz as well.

Wolves are shy of humans, a concept many still do not understand due to deep-routed beliefs that still exist from old folk tales. Despite this the return of the wolf has been a positive for the country’s biodiversity, because as apex predators, wolves control the populations of 130,000 roe deer and 35,000 red deer. This is beneficial for the local ecosystem, as controlling populations of large herbivores prevents them from overgrazing their habitat. If deer populations surpass the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, it can cause the depletion of food and habitat resources required by other organisms. A single wolf requires about two to four kilograms of meat a day, which aside from deer, they get from wild boars and foxes.

In 2019, the Gruppe Wolf Schweiz reported around 60 individuals in the country, including six established packs. Their re-emergence continuously sparks protests from farmers, who lose around 200 to 500 livestock individuals (95 per cent sheep, 5 per cent goats) to these predators annually. When wolves cannot find wild prey, they will primarily steal sheep from grazing mountain herds. However, one must keep in mind that these losses are only 0.02 to 0.07 per cent of the total 506,000 livestock individuals in the country.

Despite this small percentage, there is still uproar from farmers affected by these losses. The attacks on livestock are directly correlated to the density of wolves in a region, and as most of the country’s wolves are concentrated in the southwest, the percentage of losses are unequally distributed amongst the sheep farmers. In July of 2020, a sheep farmer in the canton of Graubünden, an area with perhaps the most wolves, had reported that he has lost a total of 59 sheep to the predators. As a result, he has had to install electric fences costing up to €32,000 out of his own pocket.

Domesticated sheep grazing in the high alps. These free-ranging sheep herds are the most common livestock hunted by wolves. | Stephan Wieser / Unsplash

Votes to be able to hunt wolves re-entered the Swiss parliament last summer. This revision of the 1986 law has mostly been driven by the growing tensions between farmers and wildlife in rural areas. In the Alps, sheep farmers tend to keep herds varying between 20 individuals and 1,000 individuals. Farmers do not get funds from their regional governments in order to implement measures for protecting their livestock herds, and those left unprotected are naturally an attractive and easy prey option for wolves residing in the area.

Farmers, however, do get compensated for each livestock that gets killed by a wolf or lynx. The money comes from the state, specifically from the fee that hunters need to pay in order to participate in the hunting seasons. It should be noted that they do not receive compensation for the thousands more livestock they lose due to illness and falling off cliffs.

Due to concerns about the growing wolf population, the Swiss Parliament passed a revised Hunting Act in November of 2019. It outlined that one could proactively hunt wolves, in order to protect agricultural livestock. This new law not only threatened wolves, but also beavers, ibexes and lynx. It would have essentially allowed the culling of non-problematic wolves as a ‘preventative measure’.

After collecting 260,000 signatures, environmental groups pushed a national vote on the revised Hunting Act on the 27 November 2020. Just over half the voters voted against the act, meaning the law of 1986 remains. The results show that the majority of voter turnout are for a peaceful co-existence between humans and wolves. However, the outcome also highlights the stark contrast in attitude between urban and rural areas, where most in support of the revised act reside in the countryside and those against in the cities.

Young Eurasian wolf pups play-fighting. | Ralf Κλενγελ / Flickr

In order for farmers and wolves to co-exist peacefully, the state should offer funding to support the implementation of mitigation measures. If need be, the money required for these measures should come from raising the prices of agricultural products. Protective measures against wolves include the use of shepherds, herd dogs and electric fences – all of which need to be paid by farmers themselves.

One can therefore understand the position of the Swiss farmers. The only financial support they get from the regional government as a protective measure, is to relocate their herds when an increased number of wolf attacks have occurred on livestock in the region. Although the failure to pass the revised Hunting Act is a win for biodiversity, it means that the threat to farmer’s livelihood continues.

From an environmental perspective, the outcome of the vote to keep the 1986 Hunting Act in place is a reason to celebrate. In addition, Gruppe Wolf Schweiz reported three newly established packs at the end of 2020, bringing the county’s total up to nine.

Once hunted to extinction, perhaps wolves can now call Switzerland home.

Feature Image: Ralf Κλενγελ | Flickr (2021) 'Änderung des Jagdgesetzes.' Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft. Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021].

Fenazzi, S. (2020). 'Abstimmung: Was bedeutet das neue Schweizer Jagdgesetz für den Wolf?.' SWI swissinfo Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021].

Gerber, Bundi, Huber and Anliker (1986) 'Bundesgesetz über die Jagd und den Schutz wildlebender Säugetiere und Vögel (Jagdgesetz, JSG) vom 20. Juni 1986.' Schweizer Bundesrat. Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021]. (2021) 'Verbreitung des Wolfes im Herbst 2020' - Gruppe Wolf Schweiz. Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021].

Thurnherr, W. (2020) 'Referendum gegen die Änderung vom 27. September 2019 des Bundesgesetzes über die Jagd und den Schutz wildlebender Säugetiere und Vögel (Jagdgesetz, JSG). Zustandekommen.' Schweizer Bundesrat. Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021].

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