An interesting topic I seem to stumble upon regularly when reading articles and case studies, is the reintroduction of predators into the mountainous regions, covering Europe and North America. I recently picked up a coffee table volume, with an article exploring the Romanian wilderness and the integration of European Bison to the Carpathian Mountains, and how this was changing the local eco-system.
Across western Europe, we are sheltered from wild predators, the main danger whilst moving and exploring the mountains being the weather. This is caused by hunting species to eradication centuries ago, coupled with the overpopulation of parts of Europe, especially in parts of the UK. The wild expanses are slowly diminishing, with each estate, and new town that crops up to cater for the ever growing population.
The first time I’d encountered the thought of coming face to face with a bear was in Albania. It’s a scary thought when you read about bear encounters and attacks, but I have been lucky (or unlucky) enough to talk to someone who had personally been involved in an encounter.
In the UK, native bear species have been absent from the isles for nearly 2000 years, with wolves eventually being hunted to their demise somewhere between 1600-1800’s. It is hard to track down a date of their absence, but tales of wolf sightings date to as late as 1888, although there is much scepticism over these later sightings.
In Europe there are currently an estimated 17,000 brown bears, 12,000 wolves, 9,000 Eurasian lynx and 1,250 wolverines. Most of these roam across northern and eastern parts of Europe, yet none of these big predators have been reintroduced to the UK.
Recently there has been a push to reintroduce and re-wild species as to conserve our habitat, and help the reserves and remote regions return to their natural equilibrium. Following the re-introduction of many species of mammals in reserves across Europe, the topic of reintroducing wolves to the wilds of Scotland has been murmured, being met with conflicting views within the public and causing debate between professionals.
One of the most amazing transformations of a reserve is that of Yellowstone National Park, located in Wyoming and breaching the Montana and Idaho county boundaries, this national park covers 2.2 million acres and attracts over 4 million visitors every year. In the 1920’s, the last pack of wolves was hunted and left the large expanse short of one of the main predators that had kept balance in the parks ecosystem.
In 1995, wolves were eventually reintroduced to Yellowstone, with the scope that they would bring large elk populations under control and bring balance to the eco system within Yellowstone.
The absence of wolves had allowed the elk population to explode, leading to the decimation of shrubs and greenery around the national park. Even more intriguing was the way in which the absence of wolves had changed the rivers. As the shrubs and greenery had disappeared, the banks of the rivers had dried and began to crumble. Roots retain moisture in the earth, and their complex network stemming down into the soil helps to stabilise banks - but without these two factors, the banks are easily overcome by the power of the surging rivers. Funny how far down the chain the effect of an absence predator can span.
With the introduction of wolves, the landscape began to change drastically. The Elk were pushed around the park by the presence of wolves, which in turn gave the river banks and plains the respite needed to begin the process of redeveloping its network of shrubs and greenery.
Return of the foliage meant more bird species settled and subsequently larger predatory birds began to follow close behind. With the greenery returning and rivers stabilising, fish population began to grow, beavers and other mammals that dwell on the water began to thrive. The whole eco system had gone from sinking into its declining state, to a busy expanse full of wildlife and new habitats. The dramatic effect reintroduction of wolves had was astonishing.
Many professionals and campaigners have used this as inspiration to reintroduce the predators to remote parts of the Scottish Highlands, with hopes to have similar effects in the UK. The UK, in comparison to many other European countries, currently has a very bland variety of species. With the introduction of wolves, the hope would be that the eco system would mimic that of Yellowstone (to pick and example), or at least follow its trends.
The big question that always arises is the safety of the population, and of farmers livelihood. Of course a pack of wolves would make a flock of penned sheep an easy meal, but there are ways of naturally preventing the wolves from hunting farmers livestock.
Wild deer are in their abundance in parts of the highlands – although, some would argue they are not truly wild. In many places you can find deer, that will (although cautiously) be open to human interaction, usually if food is involved. With these deer being so used to human interaction, and without the anxiety and fear of predators, this could have adverse effects on deer populations if they don’t adapt quickly to the reintroduction of such an aggressive predator. Some argue that with such a vast and overpopulated expanse of deer, that the reintroduction of wolves would cease the need for hunting, and naturally bring the deer population to a healthy and sustainable size. If the new arrival of wolves were busy tracking these roaming deer, this could help to reduce the loss of farmed livestock, although a small percentage in the region would always expect to be lost.
The largest topic that crops up with such a discussion is always the safety of the population, and those who spend time within these remote regions hiking, mountain biking and skiing. If wolves have sufficient sources of food, they tend to stay away from populated areas. Although there are always the strays and exceptions.
I have personally seen wolves around 500m away from myself whilst skiing in Bulgaria, thinking at first with wide eyes “Wow”, followed by “What if!”, but they really weren’t interested in anything that we had to offer. We’ve all seen or heard of horror stories – “Man hunted by pack of wolves for 12 days” or seen the film “The Grey” where Liam Neeson tries to evade a very aggressive pack of wolves, but in reality encounters like these are incredibly far and few between.
A quick search on the internet can bring up a whole load of encounters with mostly bears, but also wolves – mainly from the mountainous regions of North America. Across these huge areas, the presence of these predators is common place, and accepted as part of being able to explore parks so vastly wild and natural. Whilst people carry protection, such a bear mace and in some parts guns, these mammals very rarely approach humans with encounters usually being when humans stray onto their territory or catch them by surprise across their intended route.
Dogs can also cause bears and wolves to attack, defending their territory or their young, and I have met a local in which this scenario provoked a very protective female bear. The re introduction doesn’t come without its problems.
We managed to get in touch with the UK Wolf Conservation Trust (UKWCT), to gain some clarity on the subject from the founder, Teresa Palmer who has been working and caring for wolves for 40 years, and running the UKWCT since 1995.
“Unfortunately, to answer the question simply, no. I cant see Wolves being reintroduced to the UK for a number of reasons. The main one being the attitude of the general public. I really don’t think there would be enough area for them to live sustainably and this would lead to them being persecuted following the same treatment as they have encountered throughout history.
The only place that would be possible would be Scotland, but I’m not too sure where. At UKWCT, we recently had one of our wolves in the sanctuary deliberately set free and the outcry from the public was massive. He was free in Berkshire for 4 hours before being captured, but by that time it had already made it onto national news – the prejudice against them is too great, they’ve been missing from society for 250 years now and its hard to adjust the mindset of the public.”
Although it seems unlikely that we will ever see this amazing species reintroduced to the wilds of the UK, you can visit places such as the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, to see and interact with the Wolves.
You can find out more about the UKWCT at www.ukwct.org.uk and discover more about projects and wolves they support through their work. A massive thank you to Teresa for her input in the matter and everyone there who puts so much time and effort into these conservation projects.
What do you think about reintroducing wolves to the UK? Get in touch or let us know what you think on our social media channels!