Finns have rarely welcomed marauders from across their eastern border. Now a row over the right to shoot wolves crossing the frontier from Russia has landed the Finnish Government in Europe's highest court and prompted death threats against Europe's Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas.

So high are passions running that thousands of Finns have signed a petition to protest at an attempt by the EU to protect canis lupus - better known as the wolf - which is an endangered species.

Finns say that the influx from Russia has boosted the domestic wolf population and that the Russian animals have a track record of killing dogs and livestock. Brussels insists that the "nationality" - or origin - of the animals is irrelevant and that, once on Finnish soil, wolves must be protected according to the EU habitats directive.

With a full-scale stand-off between the two sides, the European Commission is poised for legal proceedings in the European Court of Justice.

The row has touched a raw nerve in Finland where irate callers to radio phone-ins have suggested shipping the wolves to Brussels.

Henrik Lax, a liberal MEP who helped organise the petition, said: "The wolf as such is not threatened in Finland. There is a large population of wolves coming over from the Russian side, and a couple of hundred wolves are now living in Finland.

"When one comes into a village it creates fear and it is right and proper that the police should give permission to kill a lone member of the species. There is real fear among people living in sparsely populated countryside. It is becoming an anti-EU issue."

The law permits the hunting of about 10 wolves each year in areas with reindeer herds, but not in the rest of the country. Nevertheless the Government in Helsinki admitted that, during the winter of 2000-2001, 30 wolves were killed outside the reindeer areas. Of these, 25 were authorised by the Government.

Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for Mr Dimas, said: "Wolves can co-exist with a rural population. Proper planning in other countries such as Spain and France has shown this is possible. We are not asking too much of Finland and the issue of the origin of the wolves is irrelevant. Once they enter Finnish territory their management becomes the responsibility of the Finnish Government."

Ms Helfferich, who confirmed the existence of death threats against Mr Dimas, argued that shooting wolves was counter-productive since it split packs and made the animals less able to hunt their normal prey and more likely to attack domestic pets.

Estimates of the Finnish wolf population vary from 120 to 180. Figures are fluid because the animals cross both the Russian and Swedish borders. Attacks on dogs have been reported in Juva, Kuhmo, and Ilomantsi and 117 dogs are said to have been killed from 1996-2004.

Ilpo Kojola, a researcher from the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute, told the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper that only a small number of wolves attacked pet dogs.

The commission said that it was more than 100 years since a human was killed by a wolf in Finland and that attacks on reindeer were statistically insignificant, causing the death of about 0.1 per cent of the herd.

- INDEPENDENT