FunNature & AnimalThe wolf doesn't attack cattle, it's actually...

The wolf doesn't attack cattle, it's actually…

It is a widespread belief that the wolf in Spain causes serious damage to livestock. In popular culture, the figure of the “big bad wolf” is so internalized that it is learned from childhood. The Three Little Pigs , The Seven Little Kids , Little Red Riding Hood , or the fable of Peter and the Wolf are part of the children’s literature with which we have grown up and in all these stories, the wolf is the bad guy .

But is the damage caused by the wolf as serious as certain groups would have you believe? Is the wolf so destructive and so ravenous? Is all the damage attributed to them caused by wolves? To answer these questions, it is better to put aside popular biases and beliefs and analyze the data with the critical vision that science provides us.

The wolf is not as fierce as they paint it

The reality is quite different. It is true that the wolf is a predator and that, if he has nothing better, a domestic sheep in his territory can be an appetizing morsel . However, wolves do not like to approach people, they will only do so when they have no other choice.

In reality, in the diet of the wolf, domestic animals barely account for 20% of the intake and this value drops to half if there is abundant wild prey available . However, this data should be interpreted with caution. Wolves are scavengers as well as hunters, and if they find the carcass of a sheep or any other farm animal they will eat its remains. It is very likely that a good part of that percentage in the diet comes from carrion consumption and not from active hunting. The few attacks on herds usually happen when they are free in the field and unattended .

On the other hand, many of the supposedly frustrated attacks reported by shepherds, in which they or their dogs have prevented the wolf from taking any prey, are not real. The usual thing in these cases is that the herd goes to the rest areas and it is the dogs that lift the wolves, an act that the shepherd incorrectly interprets as an attack .

Hunting wolves: a worse idea than it seems

Even if the wolf were a real problem for livestock, hunting it would not be the right solution . Wolves form larger or smaller family groups, depending on the availability of prey. The hierarchical structure of the pack is extraordinarily strong and, contrary to popular belief, the most important figure in the cohesion of the pack is the dominant female , the breeder, while the breeder male is the one who leads the hunt. A well-structured pack optimizes hunting, looking for the greatest amount of meat per hunt and minimizing risks. That includes, as we’ve said, avoiding humans at all costs.

If hunters kill a wolf that is not part of the pack’s breeding pair, the pack only loses part of its predatory power, and will regain it after a few years. The problem begins when the human being hunts the dominant individuals, which are usually the largest, and therefore, the favorites of the hunters . If the male falls, they are eliminating whoever is leading the hunt; if they eliminate the female, the herd breaks down and loses its cohesion. In those cases, the pack becomes fragmented and the wolves lose the ability to hunt large wild prey . They are forced to take greater risks to get closer to more clumsy and easy-to-kill animals, such as sheep. For this reason, hunting wolves to protect livestock is counterproductive .

More effective than hunting wolves is keeping the herd under surveillance whenever it is in the natural environment, and even more so if you have the help of at least two mastiffs.

In any case, if the wolf is not the cause of so many livestock deaths, if its attacks are really as anecdotal as the scientific data seems to indicate, then where do so many problems come from?

The real cause of the problem

A study carried out in the Basque Country by researchers Jorge Echegaray and Carles Vilà showed results that are difficult to refute. Analyzing wolf feces, they found that only 26% of the remains found belonged to domestic animals , most of them horses and cows; animals that are not usually reported as victims of the wolf, and that fit with the consumption of carrion. Sheep barely appeared as prey in 3 % . The wild fauna represented 73% of the diet, which confirms the hypothesis that the wolf prefers these wild animals.

On the other hand, feces from feral dogs, abandoned domestic dogs that have become feral, or their descendants were studied. Unlike wolves, dogs have no problem approaching humans , and find it much easier to hunt farm animals than wild ones. Up to 71% of the prey items identified in feral dog feces were cattle, of which half were sheep .

Given the fact that feral dogs are actually the number one problem with sheep herds , it adds one more compelling reason to the long list of reasons why a dog should not be abandoned . But not all dogs can reach that level of adaptation to the wild; they must be animals capable of learning to hunt effectively, or that already know how to hunt when they are abandoned. This puts the focus of responsibility on another sector of the population that, ironically, is also often in favor of wolf hunting .


Barja, I. 2009. Prey and Prey-Age Preference by the Iberian Wolf Canis Lupus Signatus in a Multiple-Prey Ecosystem. Wildlife Biology, 15(2), 147-154. DOI: 10.2981/07-096
BOE. 2021. Order TED/980/2021, of September 20, which modifies the Annex to Royal Decree 139/2011, of February 4, for the development of the List of Wild Species under Special Protection Regime and the Spanish Catalog of Endangered Species. BOE, 226, 115283-115287.
Echegaray, J., & Vilà, C. 2010. Noninvasive monitoring of wolves at the edge of their distribution and the cost of their conservation. Animal Conservation, 13(2), 157-161. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2009.00315.x
Imbert, C., Caniglia, R., et al. 2016. Why do wolves eat livestock?: Factors influencing wolf diet in northern Italy. Biological Conservation, 195, 156-168. DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.01.003
Uríos, V., Vilà, C., et al. 2000. Study of the actual incidence of wolf predation in livestock, comparing two different methods. Galemys, 12((not special)), 241-248.
Wielgus, R. B., & Peebles, K. A. 2014. Effects of Wolf Mortality on Livestock Depredations. PLOS ONE, 9(12), e113505. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113505

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