More than a century ago, wolves were hunted to extinction in Germany. These days, they’re back – and their presence is a source of political strife.

Wolf attacks on livestock increased drastically in 2017, according to government statistics released at the weekend: they carried out 472 attacks, an increase of 66% over the previous year. The number of killed, injured or missing livestock – mostly sheep and goats – rose 55%, to 1,667.

The issue of how to deal with wolves is pitting farmers who want to protect their livestock against environmentalists who prioritise the protection of vulnerable species.

Julia Klöckner, the agriculture minister, said the latest figures proved the government needed to act. Germany should shift its regulations to make it legal to remove individual wolves from a pack, she told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

For more than a century, wolves were extinct in Germany. In recent years, however, especially since the country’s reunification in 1990, the animals have been reintroduced and are slowly making a comeback. They are especially prevalent in the former East German states, since many have crossed the border with Poland.

Though environmentalists have lauded the return of the wolf, not everyone is happy that they are back – or that they have been awarded protected status. EU regulations outlaw the killing of wolves, allowing exceptions only when there is “no satisfactory alternative” or if people are in danger.

The European commission recently approved provisions to allow countries to reimburse farmers for livestock killed by wolves and other protected animals, as well as providing them with funding to better protect against such animals.

But farmers argue that they should be allowed to shoot the predators when they directly endanger their livestock. Some political parties, including Klöckner’s centre-right Christian Democrats, agree and have called for downgrading wolves’ protected status, which would allow them to be hunted in certain situations.

Statistics from Germany’s federal documentation centre say 73 wolf packs, 30 wolf pairs and three individual wolves have been sighted in the country. The sightings have occurred in seven of Germany’s 16 states, particularly former East German states such as Brandenburg and Saxony.

The government agency, however, said shooting the wolves would only be a short-term fix. Ultimately, farmers’ methods and practices “must be adapted to cope with the renewed presence of wolves”, it said.

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