A rewilding dream… or just howling at the moon?

Their fearsome cries last echoed in Scotland’s glens more than 200 years ago. Now, despite furious opposition, there’s growing support for plans to reintroduce the wolf…

By Emma Cowing

This article was first published in the Scottish Daily Mail, 24th October, 2020

OVER the ice they came, huge paws padding silently in the dark. Two, perhaps three wolves, returning to an island they had not inhabited for over 160 years. It was the start of 2018 when Europe’s most feared predators reached the largest of the Åland Islands, making their way across a frozen sea to this scattered archipelago nestling between Sweden and Finland.

First, wolf tracks were found. In April, two were filmed together in the local forest. By June, sheep were being mauled and killed, while terrified islanders were demanding they be allowed to shoot them on sight.

And yet while the wolf has, since the collapse of the USSR, slowly been recolonising mainland Europe — much to the concern of farmers and landowners — in Scotland, a movement exists which is set on reintroducing packs of them voluntarily.

Among those keen to see wolves stalking the Highlands once more — which include two rich philanthropists who own vast swathes of Scottish land and a handful of rewilding charities — is the gardener and conservationist Monty Don.

‘I think it’s an interesting idea to introduce wolves,’ he said, speaking last week.

‘Deer are a problem. We look at them as incredibly beautiful animals and think of culling them as murder. But all animals need to have predators and if deer eat all the trees then the wildlife that benefits from those trees will disappear.’

An interesting idea? The Scots of the Middle Ages, who feared wolves so much that they had custom-built refuges strategically placed along highways and were forced to bury their dead under flagstones in order to stop the animals dragging them away, might disagree.

But the issue of whether wolves — arguably Europe’s most sinister and myth-infused predator — should be reintroduced to Scotland, is one that will not go away.

Chief instigator in the re-wolfing of Scotland is Paul Lister, who inherited £50 million when his family sold the MFI furniture chain and now owns the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, a 23,000 acre Highland estate near Ardgay, Ross-shire.

HIS philosophy is simple.

‘The bare, bald hills that we think are natural are in fact the result of man’s intervention,’ he says. ‘Our meddling with nature broke the eco system and altered the landscape.

‘What survived and flourished were deer, but they eat the very vegetation that would allow the pine and beech forests to grow again and, with stalking at £500 a gun a day, were encouraged to multiply for commercial reasons.

‘We have to keep their numbers down to allow the land to regenerate and the most natural way to do this is by introducing once indigenous carnivores like wolves and bears for whom they are natural prey.’

Lister’s plan is to introduce two packs of ten wolves to the estate, followed in the future by lynx and yes, even bears.

Rather than let them roam free however, he wants the animals contained on the estate behind a nine-foot fence. Still, he maintains, they pose little threat.

‘Wolves get a bad press because of nursery stories like Little Red Riding Hood,’ he says. ‘But they’re not interested in hunting us.’

It’s a view unlikely to be popular amongst farmers and gamekeepers, who have watched in alarm as the idea of rewilding in Scotland has taken off in recent years.

The National Farmers Union Scotland (NFU) is clear that wolves would be of great concern to crofters and farmers.

‘As we know from experience in other parts of Europe, species like wolves and lynx will kill lambs and sheep in their thousands,’ says Andrew Midgley, environment and land use policy manager at National Farmers Union Scotland.

‘Proposals for this sort of reintroduction tend to have the unfortunate effect of driving a wedge between farmers and environmentalists at a time when we all need to be working together to focus our collective efforts on safeguarding existing wildlife.’

One of the main bones of contention is around the amount of space available for such large apex predators, whether fences are involved or not. Scotland is, after all, a tiny country in comparison to somewhere like the US, where wolves have been successfully reintroduced in huge national parks such as Yellowstone and helped regenerate much of the landscape.

Alex Hogg, Scottish Gamekeepers Association chairman, once compared bringing wolves back as akin to ‘reintroducing killer whales into a swimming pool’.

Fergus Ewing, meanwhile, Scotland’s Rural Economy Minister, has said that wolves would be brought back to Scotland ‘over my dead body’.

The wolf is not the only animal that some campaigners are keen to reintroduce to Scotland. In recent years lynx, wild boar and even elk have all been mooted as possible candidates.

As recently as this summer a trust entitled Lynx UK unveiled a proposal to release up to four Eurasian lynx, Europe’s third largest predator after the bear and the wolf, into a 147 square mile area of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Loch Lomond, only 30 miles from Glasgow.

There have been talks with Scottish Natural Heritage, who now say ‘extensive consultation’ will be needed before project approval.

Yet it is the possible reintroduction of wolves which has provoked the most excitement, as well as fear.

In the Middle Ages wolves roamed across much of Scotland, and were often to be found skulking in forests that spanned the Highlands and Perthshire. Even then they were seen as a danger to people, and a nuisance to the land.

On highways, special buildings known as spittals were built to provide refuges for travellers from wolf attacks. Graves were dug up by wolves in one Sutherland village so often that the locals resorted to burying their dead on the island of Handa, off the coast.

I N Atholl, where Mary, Queen of Scots herself is said to have hunted wolves, coffins were made wolf-proof by building them out of five flagstones.

Unsurprisingly wolves were increasingly seen as a menace, particularly by crofters and farmers, and in 1547 an Act passed decreeing that anyone who killed a wolf would be rewarded sixpence.

Thirty years later, after wolves caused huge damage to cattle herds in Sutherland, James VI made it compulsory to hunt three wolves a year. At the same time Scotland’s forests were being chopped down in vast numbers, damaging the fragile ecosystem. Many of Scotland’s wolves found themselves without a natural habitat.

Those who survived were driven by hunger into more populous areas, where they became more of a danger to humans and as a result, were swiftly dispatched.

When the last wolf in Scotland died is a matter of some controversy. Some say it was at Killiecrankie in 1680. Others that it was in Findhorn in 1743, after a wolf killed two children.

Others still say a protective housewife killed the last of the species with a sturdy wooden potato masher around 1700.

Whatever the truth, it has been centuries since wolves have been seen in our forests.

Which is perhaps why some of those keen to reintroduce them see their own rewilding projects as lasting hundreds of years, too. Step forward Anders Holch Povlsen, a Danish billionaire who is now Scotland’s biggest private landowner.

Since he and his wife Anne tragically lost three of their four children in last year’s Easter terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, the pair have thrown themselves into their rewilding project in Scotland.

The couple now own around 220,000 acres of land across 12 estates, and recently unveiled what they describe a ‘200-year vision of landscape-scale conservation in the Scottish Highlands’.

The Povlsens rarely give interviews, but are said to believe that restoring the Highlands after several centuries of damage from overgrazing by sheep and deer must be carried out over several generations and on a grand scale.

This, it is believed, will at some stage involve the reintroduction of apex predators such as wolves.

It is also worth noting that Povlsen has invested in land in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains to create a wilderness reserve for the region’s surviving bears, wolves and lynx.

Intriguingly, so has Paul Lister. Both are donors to Foundation Conservation Carpathia, run by Sir Charles Burrell, an English philanthropist and conservationist.

The proposed reserve, spanning more than 50,000 hectares, is one of the biggest of its type in Europe and could, in theory, provide a blueprint for any similar projects in Scotland.

Any rewilding in Scotland, however, is likely to be cautious, and staggered. Many interested parties will remember the recent project involving the reintroduction of beavers to parts of Scotland, which some hail as a success, while others point to damage inflicted on agricultural land including riverbanks and ditches.

PROFESSOR Alastair Driver, director of the charity Rewilding Britain, said recently: ‘I can imagine in Scotland, we might have wolves in very large enclosures within the next 20 years.

‘But … I think you have to dip your toe in the water. These animals make people wary.’

One surprising argument emerged last year however which proposed that introducing wolves might, in fact, help farmers.

A study by academics from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University suggested that unleashing the wolf could help combat deadly livestock diseases and save millions of pounds. New research suggests the alpha predator would provide a natural defence against bovine tuberculosis by preying on carriers such as wild boar and badgers.

Academics from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University believed this would lower the risk of costly outbreaks in cattle. About 6 per cent of the herd in England is affected by TB, while efforts to eradicate it in Northern Ireland cost £44 million in 2018.

Scotland is considered to be free of the disease but the condition is perceived by the NFU as the ‘the enemy at the gate’.

It is an intriguing prospect, but one unlikely to soften up farmers terrified of losing their sheep to an enemy with fangs.

Ultimately, any decision stands in the hands of NatureScot, formerly Scottish Natural Heritage, and their position remains that they have no plans to consider the reintroduction of wolves.

For the idealists however, the image of wolves once more roaming the Highlands remains a tantalising one.

The Scots-Kenyan TV presenter Saba Douglas-Hamilton once said that if she ever moved back to Scotland from Africa, she would try to persuade the powers that be to reintroduce wolves.

‘I think having apex predators is always very good for improving biodiversity in an area, and certainly it would help with re-growing forest areas and keeping the red deer population down.

‘Obviously it’s not great for sheep, but there are ways to get around that. Perhaps it’s time to cut down on the number of sheep and actually start looking at rewilding.’

Writer. Editor. Ochberg Fellow.