No need to cry wolf over its reintroduction to Britain
Friday 19th June 2015
By 1760, the wolf was hunted to extinction in Britain. However, there is today a compelling environmental argument for it to be brought back, says PETER FROST
When Theresa May accused the police of crying wolf she conveniently forgot that in the legend there really was a wolf.
The wolf is a majestic animal that once roamed throughout almost every corner of the globe.
As human settlements and hunters expanded into previously unpopulated areas, wolf populations were persecuted or even driven to extinction.
The English wolf — a subspecies of Canis lupus — once roamed and hunted throughout the British Isles. But it was hunted itself with the last animal being killed around 1590 and the last Scottish survivor some 200 years later.
By 1760, the wolf was completely extinct in Britain.
It first arrived in these Isles 10,000 to 12,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. Packs of wolves followed the migrating herds of deer, boar and grazing animals as they moved north when the ice receded.
A 6th-century Pictish carving of a wolf found in the Scottish highlands is the first real evidence of the animal in our islands. Skeletal remains prove that wolves lived throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
A male wolf can average 43–45kg (95–99lb) and females 36–38.5kg (79–85lb). Where winters are hard fur is long and bushy, and predominantly a mottled grey in colour but some can be pure white, red, or brown to black.
Accounts from a thousand years ago mention wolf hunting as a way to pay tribute to kings and nobles. Mary, Queen of Scots was just one royal among many who organised and participated in wolf hunts.
The wolf crops up in all sorts of legends. Romulus and Remus the twin sons of Mars, the god of War who founded Rome, were raised by a she wolf. Gelert in Wales was the heroic dog who defended a baby prince from a wolf and was killed in a cruel misunderstanding.
The Little Red Riding Hood story perhaps did most to give the wolf a bad name and, alongside a dozen more wolf legends, testifies to the long love and hate relationship between the wolf and human societies.
Canada’s best known environmental writer and life-long socialist Farley Mowat saw the wolf differently. His 1963 book Never Cry Wolf was an account of his positive experiences with wolves, the film of the same name was released in 1983.
Over the last half a century some bold ecologists and wildlife enthusiasts have suggested reintroducing the wolf to Britain. Our food chain lacks larger carnivores so animals like deer and wild boar have no natural predators.
Deer populations, both native and imported species, have rocketed and now the huge numbers are a real threat both to arable farmers and to ancient forests and traditional woodlands.
Deer have just one predator and that is the human shooter out for venison or simply to cull deer herd numbers.
Our English wolf was a closely related subspecies of the grey wolf, which is the most common species of wolf worldwide.
Now the pure bred English wolf is no more, reintroduction programmes would bring closely related wolves from mainland Europe, where the wolf is already making a comeback.
Scientists have established that re-introducing the wolf into the Scottish highlands could help control deer herds, and preserve the forest ecosystem from destruction as a result of deer overpopulation.
They also believe that small controlled wild wolf populations would cause very little disruption to farmed stock although a farmer compensation scheme would probably be needed.
Will they attack people? The wolf is one of the world’s best known and well researched animals. Although the fear of wolves is common the majority of recorded attacks on people have been attributed to animals suffering from rabies, so human attacks are most unlikely and easily controlled.
They are certainly not a convincing argument not to bring back the wolf.
The benefits for wildlife tourism would be enormous. Who wouldn’t travel to a remote Scottish mountain national park for the chance to see and even photograph these magnificent creatures?
Sadly our new Tory government is more likely to take the side of farmers and shooting syndicates as they have over the destruction of birds of prey.
Wolves would need careful management, but careful management is something we desperately need in many fields if we are to protect and enhance our landscape, flora and fauna.
Judging from her previous actions in the last government we are not likely to see anything like careful management from Liz Truss as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and her increasingly subservient team at Natural England and Defra.
Truss and her team have proved they are more likely to listen to grouse moor owners, pheasant shooting estates and even fox hunts than to any really concerned environmental organisation or individuals.
Sadly this time, I am not crying wolf.