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Wolves In Scotland?

Updated: May 30


Reintroducing wolves to The Scottish Highlands


For those who have been following our removals service, it will come as no surprise that, as our name suggests, Green Move is a moving company with an environmental interest. The challenges faced by the natural world, from climate change and industrial pollution to the destruction of habitats and loss of biodiversity, can sometimes seem so overwhelming that a recourse to apathy is not unreasonable. It’s also not helpful. If we are going to meet some of the challenges of the 21st century, despite their global nature, the most obvious place to start is at home.


Since Green Move’s beginnings almost two and a half years ago, we’ve been making regular donations to the environmental charity, Trees For Life (TFL), whose goal is to restore some of the lost Caledonian Forest that once covered much of the Scottish Highlands and has been reduced, by people, to around 1% of its former extent.


TFL’s aim is to set in motion some of the natural processes that will allow for the regeneration of habitats before stepping back and leaving nature to it. The charity’s founder, Alan Watson Featherstone, explains that ‘it’s not about turning any clock back and creating some sort of museum piece, it’s about restarting the clock’ (2015). Other than the opportunities rewilding will afford local villagers to ramble in a vastly more enriched environment, wildlife tourism is a big industry around the world. Coupled with the environmental incentives for such projects are economic ones, which, sad though it is, are often the deciding factors in securing the necessary support for enterprises that should by any sensible metric be viewed as an intrinsic good.


Despite the beauty of Scotland being celebrated the world over in films such as Braveheart as a country of rolling hills largely devoid of vegetation, this is far from the natural order of things. Rather, it is the ravished remains of a landscape decimated by centuries of agriculture and industrial tree felling which is now entirely without the native species which were the ecological drivers keeping nature in balance. Attempts by humans to manage what nature once did so effortlessly are at best misguided and, more often than not, woefully counterproductive.


Notably, the British Isles is one of the few places in Europe to have no remaining large carnivores. A land that once boasted such species as lynx, bears, boar, wolves and wolverines has had every one of them wiped out, leaving deer populations to proliferate to such numbers that, even with landowners eager to profit from their hunting, the damage they cause by grazing means that without significant change it is certain that natural diversity will never be restored and the health of Scotland's ecosystems will continue on the same depressing trajectory.

scots pine trees at glen affric
Caledonian Pine Trees - Photo by Gav Troon

Chief among the country’s lost predators is the gray wolf, whose absence from a land they once populated every corner of is one of the primary reasons for the current state of ecological poverty. According to legend, the last wolf in Scotland was killed by a huntsman near Inverness in 1743. This is almost certainly apocryphal, as by this point the dwindling population of canis lupus would have long known to avoid the bipedal ape. The last wolf likely died old and alone, far away from human eyes.


The complete extirpation of wolves was seen as a cause for celebration at the time; for then, as now, folklore and fairy tales demonised them as ferocious beasts that preyed upon babies and scavenged both graves and the bodies of corpses on battlefields. The big bad wolf was a threat to be feared and killed on sight. In reality, wolves prefer to avoid humans and attacks are exceptionally rare. According to Trees for Life’s website:


While there have been recorded attacks on humans, these have been so rare, and the statistical risk of attack so negligible, that it serves as a clear example of the power of the imagination to exaggerate a perceived threat. It is a fact that domestic dogs, horses and work-related stress are far more dangerous than wolves!” (Trees for Life, 2021)


Attacks on humans that have occurred are usually by wolves with rabies, wolves that have felt threatened or those that have lost their fear of humans due to feeding. There is no doubt that a rabid wolf is a dangerous prospect. Indeed, rabid animals of any kind become aggressive. But any reintroduction programme would have candidates screened for disease and quarantined before their release. Guardian columnist, environmentalist and author, George Monbiot reports in his 2013 book, Feral, that there are around 20,000 wolves in Europe, but in the last fifty years just ‘five people have been killed by rabid wolves and four by wolves without rabies, four by each category in Russia (where there are 40,000 wolves) and none in North America (where there are 60,000)’. There has been a handful of unverified killings in North America, which may be attributable to wolves but could also have been bears, but in any case the number is truly infinitesimal. To put things into perspective, the ‘chance of being killed by a wolf in Europe, even where they are abundant, is much smaller than the chance of being struck by lightning…or [killed] by a collapsing deckchair’ (pp. 113-4).


Wolves in Europe


As it turns out, Britain is virtually alone in its resistance to bringing back the wolf. Sweden’s wolf population is estimated to be around three hundred, and the government has called for numbers not to fall below that level. In Norway, after being wiped out more than a hundred years before, wolves reintroduced themselves by simply walking over the border from Finland. It is estimated there was recently close to a hundred wolves living in designated ‘wolf zones’ in the southeast of the country. In France, where wolves were extinct between 1927 and 1993, there are now over 200, in as many as twenty packs. Wolf numbers are now growing in Germany, Poland, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. After nearing the brink of extinction in the 1970s, Spain’s wolf population has quintupled to around 2,500 (Monbiot, p. 113). The reintroduction of wolves to the continent is increasingly supported by the general public as awareness of their benefits grows and the almost non-existent danger they pose to people becomes better understood.


This ecological revolution, both with and without human assistance, is happening in nearly every country in Europe. But in Britain, where wolves have one obvious barrier to reintroducing themselves, an informed public discussion will be essential in bringing back a species whose absence is largely responsible for the ecological desert that so many parts of the countryside have become.


The Miracle of the Wolf


The wolf’s main prey was deer, and their absence has left deer with no natural predators. A staple part of the deer’s diet are tree saplings, which they browse mercilessly, allowing nothing to grow beyond the size of a stump. The wolf is a keystone species, as its presence has a disproportionately positive effect that cascades all the way down the food chain. The reintroduction of wolves would therefore not just bring down deer numbers, but some surprising benefits would soon emerge.


A real world demonstration of how an ecosystem responds to wolves is available in the case of Yellowstone National Park where, after 70 years of absence they were reintroduced in 1995. As Monbiot explains in his 2017 Ted Talk, it’s not just that the wolves reduced deer numbers, but they altered their behaviour, so that the deer would avoid certain areas altogether, allowing a new generation of trees to start growing. This, in turn, encouraged birds and beavers to return and beavers, like wolves are ‘ecological engineers’ that create habitats where other species can thrive. The disproportionate effects of reintroducing the wolf continue in this way so that all the way down the food chain the full panoply of life can re-establish itself and flourish. The paradox is that a species known for killing can give life to much more than it extinguishes.


Within an astoundingly short time, the wolf, as Scottish author Jim Crumley expounds, soon becomes responsible for ‘feeding thousands of mouths, creating opportunities for dozens of other species of mammals, birds [and] insects…The wolf is the supreme agent to effect that kind of change. That is the miracle that is the wolf’ (Crumley, p. 127).

wolves in scotland
The Gray Wolf

The Big Bad Wolf


Despite their improved public relations image in many parts of the world, strong political opposition remains. Foremost is the farming industry, as livestock animals, especially sheep, are far more likely to be attacked than humans. The second group is the hunting industry, which tends to be hostile to any animal other than those they can shoot, especially if there’s a conflict with their game. In Norway there is opposition from moose hunters, because wolves prey on moose and because of the exaggerated danger they pose to humans. It is worth repeating just how overblown this risk is: ‘there is only a single case of a human being killed by a wolf where written contemporary documents exist. This concerns a six-year-old-girl, killed in Sørum, Akershus county on December 28th 1800’ (The Fear of Wolves, 2002). The moose, on the other hand, kills hunters every year, and they kill other people, too, indirectly, due to collisions with cars on roads. Nevertheless, powerful interests tend to trump those of a natural world with no voice. In recent years, Norway's wolf population has been cut by more than half after a cull was approved by the conservative media, politicians, farmers and hunters, which led to the killing of several packs. The trigger-happy, gung ho attitude of hunters is nowhere better illustrated than in the fact that 11,571 people registered for licences to shoot 16 wolves.


Similarly, the hunting industry in Britain is among the noisiest of objectors, as grouse shooting and deer stalking, pastimes enjoyed by almost no one except the wealthy landowning classes, have a disproportionate influence over public policy. These objections are not easy to sympathise with, for if the presence of a species is likely to improve ecosystems in ways that are simply beyond the best efforts of humans, then the self-serving opposition of a group of elite hunters should surely be a low priority. The farming industry, on the other hand, that does stand to lose something in the form of their livestock being threatened, is an argument that carries more weight. But this obstacle has not proven prohibitive in other countries. Once again, some perspective is needed. ‘Less than 0.1 per cent of the sheep kept in parts of America where wolves live is killed by them, and 0.35 per cent in Italy (Monbiot, p. 114). Nevertheless, it is a possibility so resistance from farmers is unlikely to be assuaged easily, especially given how stubborn was their hostility to the reintroduction to beavers (which, after years of political wrangling has finally happened to great success) which only indirectly posed a threat in the form of potential flooding due to the damns they build. If bringing back the beaver was such an uphill struggle, winning the argument on a species already so maligned is certain to be a much harder battle.


In both European and American countries there are compensation schemes available to any farmer who loses livestock because of a wolf attack. Technology, too, can play a part, in the form of deterrents. Devices exist and are deployed in South America that monitor a sheep’s heart rate so that, if a wolf does appear, the sheep's elevated stress levels trigger the device which sends a text to the farmer who can attempt to come to the rescue of his or her flock. Electric fences are another option for farmers.


Exploring the plan for wolves in could simply be shot. Shooting, paradoxically, is a strategy that could secure the wolf’s future. As already mentioned, quotas are issued in Norway each year to keep populations below a certain level. Somewhat perversely, ‘allowing licensed hunters to shoot wolves is likely to create a powerful lobby for their protection, just as anglers have become the staunchest defenders of fish stocks’ (Monbiot, p. 115).


Bring Back The Wolf


On the question of whether the wolf can rescue Scotland’s ecosystems, there is little doubt. Wherever they exist wolves promote habitats of thriving complexity, allowing life in all its diversity to flourish. For a long time it was assumed that removing animals at the top of the food chain would have few effects of great consequence but, as it turns out, these species are crucial components in the web of life, without which little else makes sense. The ecological benefits of the wolf are uncontroversial. Evidence coming in from around the world shows that only apex predators are capable of effectively stewarding ecosystems, and attempts by people to replicate this role are doomed to failure.


The triumphant success of the Yellowstone experiment ‘blazes a trail of enlightenment whose benefits are so self-evident and so well documented that they dazzle with potential’ (Crumley, p. 125). The problem is political. The farming and hunting industries have a disproportionate influence over public policy and their vociferous opposition to projects that would have widespread benefits but conflict with their own narrow interests will not be easy to overcome. But as the desperate plight of nature becomes more apparent, and solutions better understood, overcome they must be. It has been shown that the danger to humans has been massively exaggerated but, despite this, popular misconceptions are stubborn and these concerns are unlikely to go away. But even if the risks were higher, and the species in question were the sabre tooth cat, George Monbiot, again, offers a spotlight of perspective:


‘We expect the people of other countries to conserve far more dangerous animals than wolves: lions, tigers, leopards, elephants, hippos, crocodiles and cape buffalo, for example. Many people in rich nations give money to the wildlife groups protecting them. Are dangerous (or in this case not very dangerous) wild animals something we choose to impose on other people, but not upon ourselves?’ ( p. 114)


Had wolves not been killed off almost three hundred years ago they would very likely now be a protected species. People walking through forests would rarely see them, but their presence would be felt everywhere. There would, perhaps, be the occasional sheep taken out, with the predictable outcry from the farming lobby, but the ecologists that study them would remind us of the crucial role they play in sustaining the ecosystems enjoyed by both locals and wildlife tourists, who would marvel in the wilds of Scotland just as they now celebrate those of the Appalachians and Carpathians. If we aim to restore some balance to nature then it’s essential that we overcome our misguided objections and bring home some of the missing species we eliminated in a time when ignorance prevailed. The extirpation of the wolf was both a moral error and an assault upon the landscape. The wolf must be brought home.


References


Crumley, J. (2010) The Last Wolf, Clays Ltd


Featherstone, A.W (2015) Rewilding Scotland, Full Documentary, [Online] Available at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RInYnVCAo1w


Linnell, J.D.D et al, (2002) The Fear of Wolves, A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans, 2002, [Online] Available at https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=wolfrecovery


Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral: Rewilding The Land, Sea And Human Life, Penguin Books Ltd


Monbiot, G. (2013) For More Wonder, Rewild The World [Online], Available at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rZzHkpyPkc&t=8s


Trees for Life (2021) Mythology and Folklore of the Wolf [Online]. Available at https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/mammals/wolf/


Ulven, E. (2015) More than 11,000 Norwegians line up to shoot 16 wolves, The Guardian [Online] Available at

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/30/norwegian-hunters-line-up-for-licences-to-shoot-wolves



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