Finns rebel as EU moves to banish Russian wolfhunt

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The Independent Online

Finns have rarely welcomed marauders crossing their eastern border. Now a row over the right to shoot wolves from Russia has landed the Finnish government in Europe's highest court and prompted death threats against Europe's Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas.

Finns have rarely welcomed marauders crossing their eastern border. Now a row over the right to shoot wolves from Russia has landed the Finnish government in Europe's highest court and prompted death threats against Europe's Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas.

So high are passions running that 21,000 Finns have signed a petition to protest at an attempt by the EU to protect canis lupus, better known as the wolf, which is an endangered species.

Finns say the influx from Russia has boosted the domestic wolf population and the Russian animals have a track record of killing dogs and livestock. Brussels insists the "nationality" - or origin - of the animals is irrelevant and that on Finnish soil wolves must be protected under the EU habitats directive. With a full-scale stand-off between the two sides, the European Commission is poised for legal proceedings in the European Court of Justice.

The row has touched a raw nerve in Finland where irate callers to radio phone-ins have suggested shipping the wolves to Brussels. Henrik Lax, a liberal MEP who helped organise the petition, said: "The wolf as such is not threatened in Finland. There is a large population of wolves coming over from the Russian side, and a couple of hundred wolves are now living in Finland.

"When one comes into a village it creates fear and it is right and proper that the police should give permission to kill a lone member of the species. There is real fear among people living in scarcely populated countryside. It is becoming an anti-European Union issue."

The law permits the hunting of 10 wolves each year in areas with reindeer herds, on which people depend for food, clothing and shelter, but not in the rest of the country.

The government in Helsinki does admit that 30 wolves were killed outside reindeer areas during the winter of 2000-01. Of these, 25 were authorised kills.

Barbara Helfferich, a spokeswoman for Mr Dimas, said: "Wolves can co-exist with a rural population. Proper planning in other countries such as Spain and France has shown this is possible. We are not asking too much of Finland, and the issue of the origin of the wolves is irrelevant. Once they enter Finnish territory their management becomes the responsibility of the Finnish government."

Ms Helfferich, who confirmed the existence of death threats against Mr Dimas, said shooting wolves is counter-productive since that splits packs and makes the animals less able to hunt their normal prey and more likely to attack domestic pets. Mr Lax said he hopes the Commission will withdraw its court case when the government produces new plans on the management of the wolf population.

Estimates of the Finnish wolf population vary from 120 to 180, with figures fluid because the animals cross both the Russian and Swedish borders. Attacks on dogs have been reported in Juva, Kuhmo, and Ilomantsi, and 117 dogs are said to have been killed from 1996 until 2004.

Ilpo Kojola, a researcher from the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute, told the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper that only a small number of wolves attack pet dogs. But he added that the taste for canines is common among wolves from the Russian side of the border and rare for Swedish wolves, though it is possible that animals learn the habit from each other.

But the Commission says that it is more than 100 years since a human was killed by a wolf in Finland and attacks on reindeer are statistically insignificant, causing the death of about .1 per cent of the herd.

The institute also employs a sophisticated monitoring system through which ordinary Finns can track the movement of the wolves. The predators, once caught and tranquilised, are fitted with special electronic collars. A special wolf phone-number exists for hunters to ring if they are planning to move into specific regions with dogs, to ensure that they are entering a wolf-free zone.

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