Return of the Wolf

Return of the Wolf

Wolves are perhaps the most fascinating, yet feared, of extinct Scottish animals – but could they be set to make a comeback in the Scottish highlands? Anna Docherty investigates 

It seems the world is set out to vilify wolves. Or the world of children’s story books at least. Peter and the Wolf; Little Red Riding Hood; The Boy Who Cried Wolf – they all depict wolves as child scaring/Grandma guzzling creatures to be feared and never trusted.

But the truth is that up until the late 1700s wolves lived quite contentedly in Scotland; before the highland clearances and heightened hunting brought about their extinction. Wolves served a valuable function in their natural habitat, containing the population of red deer and helping with vegetation. This is one of the reasons why there is currently a suggestion to re-introduce wolves into the Scottish highlands, but as you can imagine there are a few farmers (and sheep) that are a little apprehensive about the idea.

However, Richard Morley, of the Wolves and Humans Foundation, believes that gradually views are changing and that not everyone is so pessimistic. There is a growing movement of people with the knowledge and interest to actually see something tangible happen within the next ten years, be that an official re-introduction proposal or something altogether ‘more exciting’, he explains. One such possibility is an idea of Paul Lister, a millionaire environmentalist, who wants to bring wolves onto his private land as part of a conservational game reserve on Alladale Estate, just north of Inverness. ‘The scheme could work as a kind of trial run and help strengthen arguments for a more widespread release of wolves into the wild’, believes Morley.

He is of the view that it is a case of ‘educating, raising awareness and getting people on side - particularly farmers’. His charity does not push the idea of a re-introduction, but it is interested in teaching people about the realities of living with wolves. During the spring they plan to take study groups out to Slovakia to show people what it’s like to live in real wolf country.

So, what of the wolf’s reputation as the hoodie of the highlands? ‘Wolf attacks on humans are very, very low in history’ he says, adding ‘In Scotland, wolves are a lot less dangerous than going out into the hills during the red deer ruck (mating season)’. In terms of wolves killing livestock, studies show that they are much more akin to feeding on wild prey and will only feed on farm animals in desperation. Indeed, Morley constantly finds that one of the main stumbling blocks for his charity is that many people’s views of wolves are based on perceptions and fairytales, rather than reality.

Morley thoughtfully points out that ‘in the original Caledonian forest, each animal would have played its integral part’. On a philosophical level; from field mouse, to wolf, to big brown bear - each animal has its place and serves it purpose in the chain. To mess with that is to mess with the natural swing of things; which is why we now have a vast overpopulation of red deer, whereby mass hunter culls do the job the wolf would have once done naturally.

Whatever may happen in the near – or distant – future, it is clear that thought and care will have to be put into it, to protect everyone involved; humans; farming communities and – of course - the wolves themselves. But with proper education and a deepening understanding, Morley believes that one day soon wolves could be re-instated into their natural habitat.

And perhaps one day there will also be a children’s story written about a kindly wolf, that rescues a child from a tree and helps an old Grandma home with her shopping. Or perhaps there could just be a happy tale about a wolf that lived peacefully in its natural habitat; that wouldn’t be too much to ask, now would it?

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● Wolves need around 2-6kg of meat a day, but can easily devour 10kg in one sitting and then fast until their next successful hunt. The yo-yo dieter of the animal world (and not a recommended lifestyle choice).

● Each animal has a range of facial expressions that vary further than just angry and hungry. Their furry features can also apparently display tenderised emotions of shyness, guilt and insanity.

● Wolves love playing and constantly entice mates into tomfoolery; they play hide and seek, mock fight and leap on top of one another. But naturalists have observed that the ambushing of unsuspecting pack members is their favourite game.

● Tell-tale signs of a werewolf are the meeting of both eyebrows at the bridge of the nose, curved fingernails, low set ears and a swinging stride: never travel alone with someone who ticks any of these.

● Wolves have 42 teeth – all the better to eat you with.

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