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Learning to live with the wolf

European Commission - SPEECH/14/448   10/06/2014

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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Learning to live with the wolf

Launch of EU Platform on co-existence between people and large carnivores

Brussels, 10 June 2014

Madame Jaeger,

Distinguished participants and future members of the Platform,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The short clip we have just watched was taken from a documentary produced by one of over 70 projects focusing on large carnivores which we've funded through the EU’s LIFE programme over the years. The video demonstrates practices that help people coexist with large carnivores, such as the wolf, the brown bear, the Eurasian lynx and the wolverine.

It brought back memories, not only because the video is in my language, Slovene.

As I often mention, I grew up in the countryside in Slovenia, where coexistence with large carnivores was accepted as a perfectly normal part of rural life. Although as a boy I never had to run from a bear, I do recall a feeling of wonder, mixed with fear and pride at the thought of the wild animals we knew to be nearby.

Therefore I know from personal experience that large carnivores provoke strong emotions. In my case, they were positive ones. But I am also keenly aware that conserving and managing these species in a sustainable way presents considerable challenges.

This is especially true in Europe, which is densely populated; where the countryside serves multiple purposes; where getting all stakeholders to accept that both man and these animals have a place in nature is a major challenge, made even more complex by the fact that most of the large carnivore populations can freely cross national borders.

As Environment Commissioner I am often contacted by citizens who are either strongly in favour of protecting large carnivores, or concerned by or opposed to their presence. Both sides ask the Commission to intervene, or to introduce tighter controls.

During my mandate I have also received a huge number of parliamentary questions on large carnivores – too many to count!

This has shown me, yet again, the important role the European Commission has in fostering dialogue and improving understanding among different stakeholders, with the aim of achieving the objectives and targets of the European nature legislation – specifically the aim to ensure that large carnivore populations are maintained at an optimal level, with favourable conservation status.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is often surprising to see how much wildlife can persist in our multi-functional landscapes. Large carnivores, which are seen by many as symbols of the wilderness, have shown an incredible ability to adapt, and even thrive, in modern day European landscapes. One only has to look to the spread of wolves across Germany, as well as their recent return to Denmark, for a demonstration of this ability.

Earlier this year, an article in the journal Science sounded the alarm on the decline of the world's large carnivore species. EU nature legislation and our collective efforts to implement it is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why trends associated with large carnivores in Europe haven't followed those in the rest of the world.

But this is no cause for complacency. The situation of Europe's large carnivores may be comparatively better, but that's not the same as saying that it's good. In many places, the populations are still in a precarious state. The work accomplished earlier under the Berne Convention on European wildlife highlighted the need to look seriously at large carnivore conservation. And we need to remember that protecting these species is not just in their interest. Science has shown that large carnivores play an important role in keeping ecosystems healthy.

Stephen Hawking says that "intelligence is the ability to adapt to change". We've seen that Europe's carnivores have remarkable adaptive capacity, helped no doubt by our conservation efforts. But among all creatures, man has the greatest capacity to adapt – something we've proven throughout human history. A case in point is the traditional adaptation of livestock husbandry to the presence of large carnivores. Several breeds of domestic dogs, those large dogs which are used to herd livestock, have been developed over the centuries, and even to this day in many parts of eastern and southern Europe it is still possible to see the unique partnership between shepherd, dog, and livestock in areas with high densities of large carnivores, just as it was first described in ancient Roman texts. Surely we are still intelligent enough, two thousand years later, to find ways to adapt and co-exist with these creatures.

It's clear that those ways will differ depending on location and circumstances.

The Habitats Directive allows Member States to take into account specific local circumstances in implementation. The approach taken in an area where large carnivores have always existed will be quite different from the one in an area where large carnivores are returning after a period of absence, where citizens have lost the habit of coexistence.

Of course, that flexibility in itself does not make things perfect. Let me assure you that the European Commission listens carefully to the concerns of all stakeholder groups who are impacted by the presence of large carnivores and strives to address these concerns, including those of local communities.

There are already means in place to tackle these issues and many examples of best practice to draw from. I already mentioned the LIFE programme, and I was pleased to see among the finalists of the Natura 2000 Awards given out 3 weeks ago, a project from Saxony in Germany called Kontaktbüro Wolf, which is providing information to the public about these species.

I would also point out that several EU funding mechanisms exist to facilitate both large carnivore conservation as well as conflict reduction measures. Member States can also compensate those who suffer damages caused by protected species like wolves, bears and lynx.

My services have also launched a major evidence-based evaluation of EU nature legislation, which will involve a broad stakeholder consultation. I would invite you to take part in it when the time comes.

But it isn't enough for the Commission to listen. You need to listen to each other; to work together to find solutions.

I know these complex social conflicts are difficult to solve. There are no quick-fixes. They reflect deep divisions about how rural life should be lived and how the landscape should look and be managed.

I believe that dialogue, negotiation and compromise are the only way to find peaceful and lasting solutions to conflict. That's why two years ago I asked my services to start working with a group of dedicated stakeholders – farmers, hunters, conservationists, landowners -- to create a structure for dialogue. The discussions were challenging at times, but today we will witness the fruit of this labour: the signature of an agreement by eight key European stakeholder organizations to launch an EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores, to promote dialogue and cooperation.

The inspiration for this agreement was the agreement signed ten years ago between the European Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation and BirdLife on the Birds Directive. The ongoing success of that agreement will be celebrated later this year, which gives me a lot of hope for supporting initiatives of this kind.

The added value of the platform will be to create a dialogue which did not exist before. The lack of understanding of each other’s needs and concerns prevented the development of a rational, constructive approach to finding solutions.

The Platform will discuss conditions under the existing legislation. The evidence collected from the exchanges of information and experience will also be relevant for the Commission's evaluation exercise, which I referred to earlier, which will be carried out in parallel.

I believe that large carnivores offer an opportunity to create a new and more constructive approach to resolving broader societal conflicts and tensions; one that is symbolic of a modern Europe that merges the best of traditional practices with the best of the future. A symbol of tolerance – tolerance by humans for our non-human neighbours (even the difficult ones) – and tolerance between farmers, hunters and conservationists across borders, despite their different visions for the European landscape. Managing our large carnivore populations well can be a symbol of how to use knowledge – both empirical and scientific – to help address conflicts; a symbol of good governance – with processes based on respectful dialogue, exchanges of experience and compromise.

Finally, I believe that good management of our large carnivore populations can become a symbol for the European model of nature conservation, which seeks to integrate different interests within a common landscape that is shared by many.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

It has been a long and difficult road to arrive here today, and I am fully aware that it took these eight organisations courage and determination to sign up to this agreement.

I know that some of you had to go to great lengths to convince your members that joining this Platform would be in their interests, and I know that some are still not convinced – and yet you have decided to give it a try. I want to say here that your efforts are appreciated, and I hope -- and trust -- they will pay off.

It's obvious that everyone will need to "put some water in their wine", to borrow a French expression. No one holds the monopoly of truth in this story. There are many different truths, all of them involving real issues and personal experiences. This is what makes it so complex, but also what makes it so important that all views are heard. The fact that you have all agreed to join the platform is a sign of commitment to this process.

I hope that the Platform will be what it was intended to be: a fair and open process where different experiences and knowledge can be exchanged; where new insights and better understanding of the varying points of view can be obtained.

My services in DG Environment will assist your work, but I want to end by stressing again that this Platform will be yours to turn into a success story.

I wish all of you the best of luck for the journey ahead.


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