The wolf scat hotspot – why digging in wolf faeces provides valuable insights

Scat45 (2)

Particularly large wolf scat found in the Eastern Rhodopes.

‘I found another one,’ Rachelle calls over from the other side of the dirt road and my heart takes a big jump…only one in a series of emotions that day. She stands over a furry, elongated object on the ground. The cause for my excitement: wolf scats. I can surely read your mind. How can animal droppings possibly lead to such an outburst of feelings? Only two months ago I would have asked the same question. Two months ago I arrived at the designated rewilding area in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria’s southeast. Here, in the transition zone between temperate woodlands and Mediterranean scrubs, my role as a student intern is to conduct a study on the local wolf population, in particular their diet.

For tens of thousands of years, humans have lived with and alongside wolves (Canis lupus). This relationship has yet to be fully understood and might have encompassed a complex interaction with and reliance on wolves by our ancestors that cover more aspects than mere hunting and scavenging. The effective partnership, however, seems to have undergone a shift, possibly following the discovery of agriculture and the domestication of the wolf. With the arrival of the ‘man’s best friend’, the dog, the perception of the wolf changed, too. Dangerous and mischievous, a real threat to both humans and their livestock – these and more characteristics were used to describe them. Children grew up with a good amount of fear for wolves placed into their hearts by fairy tales such as ‘Red Riding Hood’ or ‘The Wolf and the three pigs’. This fear and distrust is still deeply rooted in our modern world.

Land abandonment and more effective conservation measures have enabled Canis lupus to partly reconquer its former habitat with the resulting conflicts in tow. Now, landowners and farmers are concerned about their livestock and game. Wolves feed on domesticated animals as well as on wild ones, no doubt. But do they prefer one over the other? Is a sheep in an enclosure an easier and more rewarding prey than a wild boar piglet on a hill side? The evidences are inconclusive and as varied as the wolf’s habitat and behaviour. This calls for local, individual analyses of the wolves diet to determine what they eat, why they prefer certain prey species over others (or not) and what can be done about it from a conservation and a farmer perspective. Here it is where my study and wolf scats come into play.

In the Eastern Rhodopes farmers highly depend on livestock as the main source of income and are therefore financially vulnerable to wolf predation. Numerous studies showed different results on the proportion of livestock in the wolf’s diet: ranging from only 6% (Tukker and Uijlen, 2013) and 11% (Asbreuk, 2013; report available from Rewilding Europe on request) to 82% (Genov et al., 2008). Have the wolves changed their diet from the time of the earlier study to 2012/2013? If so, what were the reasons to do so? Have the different methods of acquiring information led to varying results? Time to find out.

I spend the first two weeks with the study design, pondering over the question how I could most successfully find as many wolf scats as possible given the limited amount of time. I decided to use the transect approach: predefining routes along trails or roads in areas where wolf activities are expected to be high. These routes are then followed on a regular basis while looking for scats along the way (for more details read my Standard Field Protocol).

The four main transects with their sideroutes in the Boynik mountains.

The four main transects with their sideroutes in the Rhodope mountains.

This technique is highly efficient as wolves prefer roads and paths for the same reason we do, to conserve energy. And most conveniently, they also use these routes to relieve themselves. My job becomes particularly easy when an individual wolf or a pack uses a specific area over and over again, something I call a ‘wolf scat hotspot’. I then basically clean up after them, so to speak. This might seem like a messy endeavour but most of the scats consist of prey animal hair, bones and the occasional feathers. I have to admit, though, that every now and then the smell of wolf scats can be quite overwhelming. The stench of a dead animal carcass mixed with the smell of blood is how I would describe the scent.

Now, two months later, I call myself proud owner of 73 wolf faeces, all of them separately packed into sealable plastic bags, awaiting further analysis.

Wolf scat handling: latex gloves and sealable plastic bags, my constant companions.

Wolf scat handling: latex gloves and sealable plastic bags, my constant companions.

The next step involves taking hair samples from the scats and using microscopy for the identification of prey. The final result will hopefully give an(other) answer to how much livestock wolves consume. This might have a considerable impact on appropriate measures to deal with the human-wolf-conflict in the future. It may also show whether or not the farmer’s concerns are justified. Assuming that livestock only comprises a relatively small proportion of the wolf’s diet, financial compensation schemes can be put in place as is already done in countries such as the United States or Sweden where livestock farmers are being reimbursed for any verified wolf kill they experience. This immense jump from wolf faeces to the implications on national conservation and wildlife policies is exactly what makes my study so fascinating and why my heart beat faster with every scat I found.

2 responses to “The wolf scat hotspot – why digging in wolf faeces provides valuable insights

  1. Pingback: The Return of the Neophron – Saving the ‘White Father’ | The Fenrir Project·

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