FILE PHOTO: A wolf is seen in the wildlife Park Schorfheide near Gross Schoenebeck
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's cabinet agreed on Wednesday to loosen tight restrictions on shooting wolves to help tackle the growing threat they pose to livestock after a year-long row within Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition.
Traditionally a symbol of cunning and wickedness in German folklore, characterised as the 'big bad wolf' in fairy tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood", wolves disappeared from Germany more than a century ago.
However, they have returned in the last few decades, mainly in a northern belt from Poland to the Dutch border, and their population is growing. Wildlife groups have welcomed the trend and have lobbied against killing the wolves, a protected species.
However, they have become a big problem for some farmers, ravaging sheep, goat and cattle herds.
Germany's DBBW Documentation and Advice Centre on Wolves says the number of animals killed by wolf attacks has risen to more than 1,600, mostly sheep and goats, from zero in 2000.
The change to the rules means that farmers no longer have to prove their livelihood is jeopardised by wolf attacks, although they still have to show that the predators are causing serious damage to get approval for a wolf to be shot by an expert.
In addition, the rules will allow members of a pack of wolves to be shot until livestock attacks end, even if it unclear which individual wolf is responsible. In theory, this means a whole pack could be wiped out.
"It will in future be easier to protect herds from repeated attacks but the wolf remains a strongly protected animal," said Environment Minister Svenja Schulze. "The draft law enables the coexistence of wolves and animal husbandry in Germany."
Germany has 75 packs of wolves, 30 wolf couples and three individual wolves, according to the latest figures from 2017/18.
Wolf management has become a hot political issue, with Merkel's conservatives and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners including a pledge to agree a strategy in their coalition deal.
While conservative Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner wanted even tougher steps, including "no wolf zones", the SPD environment minister Schulze put more emphasis on species protection.
Germany's BUND environment group criticised the new rules as "an assault on animal protection rights", arguing it would make it possible to shoot a pack of wolves on mere suspicion of having ravaged livestock.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Gareth Jones)