Bringing back the wolves?

Should we reintroduce the native grey wolf (Canis lupus) to Britain? The tourists would love to see wolves on our mountains, to hear wolves howling, and the wolves would eat excess deer.

Some people in Britain shoot deer. On a Scottish island, sheep starve. These ungulates are, or could be, prey species for wolves but wolves have been hunted to extinction here. There’s thoughtful disussion about reintroducing wolves and other large predators in this article. If you want to read about controlling deer, scroll to page 12.

In North America, opinions are strong about the wolf. Some say that wolves can reach ‘natural balance’ with ungulates, aided by ‘built-in mechanisms [meaning what?] that cause [ungulates’] reproduction rate to slow down’ and by ungulate starvation. Some are offended by the hunting of wolves. There’s evidence that wolf reintroducion to Yellowstone National Park was a success.

But North America is a continent. Here, we’re on islands. Our human populations are dense in places. People live and farm ungulates (sheep, cattle, deer, pigs, horses, donkeys) even in the Scottish Highlands. Remote by our standards.

I haven’t seen any suggestion of introducing wolves to the islands of St Kilda, home to the Soay sheep or Ulva, the place the Vikings named ‘wolf island’. Red deer (Cervus elaphus) and feral goats (Capra aegagrus hircus) live on the ironically named Ulva. Tasty food, if you’re a wolf, but nobody’s suggesting wolf reintroduction there. On the other hand wolf reintroduction is discussed for the National Nature Reserve of Rhum on page 13 of this article.

Scientists at Edinburgh University monitor Soay sheep on St Kilda and red deer on Rhum. So if large carnivores were reintroduced to Rhum, they’d be under supervision. It might be possible to manage a wolf reintroduction on Rhum. It shouldn’t be left for wolves to reach ‘natural balance’ with ungulates. That might not work, as it didn’t work after wolves were reintroduced to Coronation Island, Alaska in 1960. The reintroduced wolves ate so many deer that the wolves died out.

So if wolves were reintroduced to Britain, especially to our small islands, people would need to manage the ecosystems. Perhaps to manage them with guns. That’s a nasty thought if you believe it’s always wrong to hunt beautiful animals. But it’s an encouraging thought if you want to promote tourism. Some tourists would pay big money to watch wolves, photograph wolves and shoot wolves.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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13 Responses to Bringing back the wolves?

  1. eqfe says:

    If one were to judge the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, by the health and size of the current wolf population then it is an unmitigated success. What we don’t know yet is what will happen when the population spreads outside the borders. Western cattle ranchers have zero population for anything that interferes with their production. That includes a single wild bison grazing on government land that they have least to raise their cattle on.
    I actually know so little about the UK countryside, or the amount of undeveloped land that I don’t have an opinion of whether introducing wolves would help tourism. I’m a bit sceptical.

    • argylesock says:

      If you read any news about the Yellowstone wolves having spread outside the park, please would you tell me? I’m interested to see how this story will develop.

      As for wolf reintroduction to parts of Britain, just about everything I know is in the above post! Always something new to learn…

  2. There were reports while I was away on my field work that a wolf has been found in Denmark, they think it sneaked across the border from Germany.

    The reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone is a bit different to in the UK, it was discovered that the wolf was a keystone species, and there is debate as to whether it was ever actually extinct there. At any rate, it was a matter of decades, not centuries between population crash and re-introduction.

    I tend to agree with those who say it would benefit the wider ecosystem to have them back, although reintroduction would have to be managed. There are wolves in Germany, Sweden and Norway, as well as Greece, Italy, Spain etc, however, those countries do not have the population density that the UK has, which is most peoples concern.
    I do not think that wolf attacks are a concern personally, I am more worried about dogs biting me than wild animals, but to many people, they think of wolves the same as great whites, where it is reputation more than anything.

    • eqfe says:

      It seems to me, that the issue in the UK would be that being a relatively small country in terms of area. It wouldn’t take long for wolves in Scotland to discover sheep in the pastures of England and Wales.

      • Yes, I think that would be a concern, although, scotland is 78 thousand km2 according to wiki, which is about the same size as the Czech republic where they also have a small wolf population, so it would depend on the size of the population and where it was released.

  3. Carol Hague says:

    I’ve been to Ulva – it’s pretty small. I’m not sure there’d be enough room for even a couple of wolves to live there, even though the human population is so small. Thy might do better on neighbouring Mull, which is a much larger island, but with large tracts of managed forest and some comparatively remote bits.

    • argylesock says:

      I’ve not been to Ulva or to Mull. Perhaps Mull is bigger or more suitable for wolves – is that so?

      • Carol Hague says:

        Mull is big enough to have several small towns and other smaller inhabited places on it – googling tells me that Mull is something like 337 square miles, as compared to Ulva’s 8.

        One site explains it quite nicely by saying that Mull is around the same size as the Isle of Wight but with about a sixth of the population.

        Also, you pretty much have to go via Mull to get to Ulva, unless you charter a boat or a helicopter – I suspect they were connected at one point as the channel between them is very narrow in places. The Ulva Ferry takes perhaps ten people at a time 🙂

        • argylesock says:

          Thanks! You’ve just reminded me that we did visit Mull, spending an excellent holiday there and going on several short safaris. The wildlife is incomparable, isn’t it? Delicious mussels. And the carvings at the monastery on Iona! Now that I recall having been there I’d definitely be against any idea of introducing wolves to Mull. But nobody’s suggesting that.

          I don’t know much about Rhum. Do you?

  4. Pingback: Wolves and cod | Science on the Land

  5. Alan Cameron says:

    interesting input having grown up looking out to Rhum and Eigg on a daily basis from Sleat on the Isle of Skye I can tell you there were local concerns about Wolves swimming to Skye decades ago when talk of wolves controling the red deer population on Rhum, I suppose that in Summer it would be possible for Wolves to cross to Skye where most everyone is involved with livestock and not a tiny population either and not a particularly wealthy population therefore a risk to be considered. A place where dogs worrying sheep are dealt with short shrift. I will add that no small percentage would give the wolves a fair shake at least in the beginning.

    • argylesock says:

      Do you mean that Skye people would shoot wolves if they saw them? If so, I think that might be no bad thing. Just as farmers are legally entitled to shoot dogs worrying livestock.

      I’m wondering whether you and I have met before (in the teaching lab?) and whether you have a blog.

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