EU chief Ursula von der Leyen is embroiled in a row over the culling of wolves

Late one summer’s evening, a middle-aged woman headed off into the woods for a walk with her two dogs. She hadn’t gone far when one of them froze in its tracks.

‘Nelly just stopped, looked in one direction, and then turned around and wanted to go home,’ Nicki said. ‘She was very frightened and wouldn’t walk any further. I guessed she might have smelled something.

‘I didn’t want to hang around, so we hurried home. I knew that there had been two deer killed in the woods a few weeks earlier. Locals found the bodies – one deer had its stomach ripped open.’

The mother-of-two didn’t have to wait long to discover just how lucky an escape she’d had. 

The next morning, word spread through Beinhorn, a hamlet in the German region of Lower Saxony, of a grisly discovery in a nearby meadow. 

There, lying in the long grass, were the bloodied remains of a pony, savaged to death by a wolf.

The pony, it transpired, was called Dolly and was 30 years old. More significant was the identity of its owner: the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who owns a farmhouse in the village.

At the time, the story received only a passing mention in the German press. Mrs von der Leyen, a keen horse-rider and mother- of-seven, revealed that her family was ‘horribly distressed’ by the loss.

But what emerged last week were the wider ramifications of Dolly’s death – not just for the killer wolf but for all 20,000 wolves roaming the European mainland and breeding at an alarming rate.

Because in the weeks that followed, Mrs von der Leyen set herself on a collision course with conservationists by appearing to back growing calls to relax laws protecting wolves in Europe.

‘The Commission recognises that the return of the wolf and its growing numbers lead to conflict,’ she wrote to fellow members of the European People’s Party. 

At the same time, members of the European Parliament secured a resolution calling for laws protecting wolves to be eased.

Back in her homeland, more direct action was being taken to solve the problem.

DNA samples taken from Dolly’s body were able to identify the wolf responsible for killing the pony after officials matched them to other samples taken at a dozen killings of livestock in the area.

As a result, officials in Hanover issued a permit for the wolf to be hunted and shot dead.

Such permissions are only rarely granted under EU rules, prompting questions as to whether Mrs von der Leyen – possibly seeking rev­enge for Dolly’s death – might have personally intervened.

Both she and the German authorities have denied that is the case.

Some European countries are seeing wolf populations grow by more than a third each year, with tens of thousands of sheep, goats and cattle killed annually.

Banned from killing the predators, all frustrated farmers can do is build bigger fences or deploy guard dogs to protect their stock.

While there are no immediate plans to reintroduce wolves in the UK, rewilding experts here claim there is sufficient land for them to be released in Scotland, with some suggesting it could happen within 20 years. 

The idea is they would naturally control deer numbers

Wolves were hunted to extinction in the UK in the 18th Century, with the packs that survived in Europe forced to the fringes of the Con­tinent.