The wolf is an emotive animal whose presence in our lives - while not physical - is none the less real. Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Peter and the Wolf all introduce us to the big bad wolf before we ever get to school. Most of us can howl like a wolf despite never having seen one.
The wolf in literature, as in Aesop’s fables and the tales told by the Brothers Grimm, is often portrayed as a physical manifestation of evil. So it is not surprising that its return, after more than a hundred years, to parts of central and western Europe has raised strong emotions.
The fall of Communism and the removal of physical barriers between the East and the West has allowed wolves from Russia, Poland and Romania to head into Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium much to the consternation of farmers.
The wolf is synonymous with the concept of rewilding, a movement that seeks the large-scale restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself. It seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species like the wolf and the lynx – allowing them to shape the landscape and allowing us, humans, to re-connect with wild nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’.
If the wolf were to be re-introduced to Britain, Scotland will be where it would most likely happen and where this act of rewilding would be most fitting as it was here in 1680 at Killiecrankie, Perthshire that our last wild wolf was killed by Sir Ewen Cameron.
Paul Lister, the owner of the Alladale estate, 50 miles north of Inverness is planning, if he can gain permission, to release a pack of Swedish wolves onto 50,000 acres of wilderness enclosed by a 9 foot high fence.
Lister cites North America’s Yellowstone national park as his inspiration where the introduction of a single pack of wolves in 1995 led to a remarkable ecological turnaround. Huge numbers of elk and deer had grazed large parts of the natural landscape of Yellowstone into a barren waste however the arrival of the wolves, a top of the food chain apex predator, reduced numbers and stimulated the growth of several other animals and increased biodiversity.
Meanwhile in Germany wolves have been blamed for a drastic increase in attacks on livestock. In 2017 government figures state they carried out 472 attacks, an increase of 66% over the previous year. The number of killed, injured or missing livestock – mostly sheep and goats – rose 55%, to 1,667.
The reappearance of the wolf across mainland Europe, as in the Yellowstone national park, is good news for ecosystems. Last year several European countries experienced outbreaks of African swine fever, a devastating infectious disease that kills wild boar and domestic pigs and for which no vaccine exists. However, evidence from Slovakia suggests that where wolves are active the occurrence of swine fever is supressed. Approximately half of Slovakia in the west where the wolf is not present experienced 93% of swine fever outbreaks whereas in the eastern half of the country where wolves are present only 7% of outbreaks occurred.
Generally, wolves feed upon vulnerable animals such as those infected by swine fever. It is logical that by having wild predators killing the infected, sick and weak helps prevent the spread of the disease thereby saving farmers the cost of preventative measures (fencing) and saving the public purse the cost of compensation for dead livestock, allowed under EU rules. A similar case could be made for the lynx, its role in reducing deer numbers and its reintroduction to Northumberland.
With Brexit fast approaching, my days as an MEP are drawing to a close and looking to the future I’m extremely pleased to have been offered the role of Chair of the North East of England Nature Partnership, the environmental sister agency to the Local Enterprise Partnership. Hopefully North East farmers will not be too alarmed by this news for I’m not advocating the reintroduction of the lynx to Kielder Forest (it’s currently too small) or the wolf to the Pennines. However I will be working to help increase biodiversity, reduce carbon emissions and promote greener business.