Call of the Wild
As part of a generation raised on a diet of David Attenborough and fascinating wildlife documentaries, young people now have a better understanding of animals and the many difficulties that they face in the wild. Such programmes have helped to educate us about the true nature of many creatures and tackle some of the misconceptions that exist. One animal which has always been particularly misunderstood is the wolf. Man’s hatred of the wolf is well-established. For centuries these animals have been depicted as the enemy, as savage beasts that should be feared and hated. However, to what extent the myth and the reality merge is questionable.
The wolf was Scotland’s top natural predator for centuries. Its relationship with man is inseparable from its history in this country, along with its fate. Under the reign of James I of Scotland, the number of wolves initially started to decline, with the king ordering them to be culled, and by the time of Mary Queen of Scots, the intentional deforestation of their habitat had accelerated the wolf’s decline. The last remaining wolf in Scotland was believed to have been slaughtered in 1743, after man had hunted the rest of the species into the ground - all of which begs the question: who is the real heartless beast in this story?
Nowadays, attitudes towards such creatures have changed and we are more interested in preserving species, rather than destroying them. Although some still perceive wolves as menacing beasts, many now recognise that they have a right to be here in Scotland and their absence has highlighted just how beneficial their existence was to our ecosystem. Such environmental benefits were partly behind similar moves to bring back other former natives such as the beaver, wild boar, lynx and even the bear. The reintroduction of the wolf to the Scottish Highlands has been proposed by many experts who claim that their absence has led to the serious issue of the overpopulation of red deer - which in turn has resulted in overgrazing. It is this issue which has had a negative impact on the ecosystem, as well as on other native species. The proposed reintroduction of the wolf would mean that numbers of red deer would be kept down, resulting in the balance of the ecosystem being restored, and would also provide a natural alternative to the culling of red deer which presently accounts for the death of significant numbers of deer every year.
While many hope that such a reintroduction would give us a glimpse of the past, with wolves roaming free once again in the Scottish Highlands, the question remains what the future would hold and what difficulties might arise following such a dramatic step. In order to get an idea of the possible problems, we can look to similar reintroduction programmes in other parts of the developed world. North America is an area in which attempts to re-establish the wolf in its former habitat have highlighted the sort of difficulties which could be encountered. One aspect of North American culture which is deep-rooted in the past but is still prevalent is hunting. Some of the earliest pioneers were hunters and fur traders, and the hunting lobby and National Rifle Association still have a powerful influence on matters such as gun control. It is hardly surprising that many of the wolves reintroduced in the USA have simply been shot by hunters. While the hunting tradition and gun culture is not as strong in Scotland, the fact remains that many protected birds of prey are poisoned every year by hunters and gamekeepers who see such birds as a threat to their livelihood. The fact that they see such relatively minor predators as eagles and harrier hawks as a danger means that they would inevitably see such a formidable hunter as the wolf as an unacceptable threat to the game that they rely on for income.
It is not only hunters who see their livelihood under threat but also farmers who fear the affect that the reintroduction of wolves would have on livestock. In America, the farmers were openly defiant in saying that they would shoot the wolves if they came near their cattle. In one project situated in Washington DC, out of the eleven wolves in the reintroduced pack, up to eight had been killed by farmers and hunters. There is little to suggest that if such a project was to be launched in the Highlands of Scotland that farmers and gamekeepers would be any more tolerant.
Another problem is that while a zoo or safari park can provide protection and favourable conditions, any project where the animals can roam free is more difficult to manage. One of the issues highlighted by the high number of birds of prey that are illegally killed each year in Scotland is that protection laws can be very difficult to enforce. It is almost impossible to trace who has left a poisoned carcass on a remote Scottish hillside and while the eagle and harrier hawk are deadly hunters, they will not pass up the chance of a free meal. And the gamekeepers know that.
While the hardened attitudes of farmers and gamekeepers would suggest that the tale of the wolf is not going to have a happy ending, there are some positive signs which provide encouragement. Where those prejudices and fears have been challenged and programmes have educated the community on how to coexist with the animals, the survival rate has been considerably more encouraging. These figures have been improved further where the community has actually been involved in helping to set up the project. Moreover, the numbers have actually increased due to the wolves actually breeding in those areas. Further successes have been recorded where farmers have been compensated, for loss of livestock to the wolves, and where measures have been taken to control the wolf population.
Whether or not the reintroduction of the wolves into the Scottish Highlands will go ahead or be successful remains to be seen. Certainly the attitudes of many would have to change significantly and some practical problems would have to be resolved before the forests of Scotland will echo once more to the rush of the pack and the call of the wild.
- BBC programme “Land of the Lost Wolves”