Should wolves be reintroduced to the British landscape?

The subject of rewilding and large carnivore reintroduction is a popular topic in the UK, but why? Why do so many environmentalists and naturalists want to see large carnivores, such as wolves, reintroduced to even the remotest parts of Scotland? Wolves were eradicated from British shores in the 14th century, but landscape looked very different then and the human population was much smaller. I know my views are out of sync with many other conservationists, but I personally do not believe that Britain is ready to reintroduce wolves safely, with the possibility of providing a secure and long term future for their survival.  So why is my position different to so many? Quite simply Britain does not have the appropriate environment to support large carnivores. We just need to consider wolf behaviour, their prey and territory requirements and soon the practicalities diverge from the dream of wolf reintroduction.

So how much room, space territory do wolves actually need? Well we will bring some researched facts into this debate later, but that does not always give the reader scale or insight to the amount of land required to support wolves. So we will start with some of my own personal anecdotal evidence. My home is located in the eastern Carpathian mountains, in an area with one of the highest densities of wild wolves in Europe.  As a conservationist I have spent considerable time in the eastern Carpathian forests, so it may come as a surprise that I have never seen a wolf in the wild. Tracks, hair on trees, wolf kills and other such activity, but I have never seen a truly wild wolf . The wolf  in the photo above was part of a breeding programme, taken in a large forest enclosure.

So what does this tell us? Well the Carpathian forests of Transylvania, Romania are vast. They stretch for as far as the eye can see in all directions. Even when I travel by Land Rover, you can drive all day without seeing another human being. Before relocating to Transylvania, I could not possibly comprehend such a large scale environment. With so much dense forest cover it is easy for bears and wolves to hide, and thrive, as they need space to remain truly wild. However, even with all this space and natural prey, they still prey on the livestock of transhumance shepherds, because if not adequately protected by Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs), sheep and cows make easy meals. In the cold of winter when food is far more scarce, it is not unusual for wolves to descend to the lower valleys to hunt, and they even enter villages to take stray dogs at night. If we are to truly coexist with predators in Britain again, we not only need to have the appropriate environment for them, but also the means to protect our livestock using non-lethal methods.

Skull of young wild boar killed by wolves

Wild boar skull, the remains of a wolf kill.

Well we know what wolves eat, so pack territory size is going to depend on the abundance of prey available. It is obvious that if wolf reintroduction does take place in Britain, it would have to be in areas with low human population density, with an abundance of natural prey. On the face of it, only the highlands of Scotland which supports large numbers of red deer would be a suitable location. However, this would be a mistake in my opinion, as we simply need to ask if all those red deer are available to be utilised as prey for reintroduced wolves? Of course not. Many people, especially estate owners that rely on deer hunting will certainly lose business. I am not an advocate of hunting, but I do understand that it plays an important part in the rural economy of Scotland. If wolf reintroductions are to be accepted, you need to carry as many local people with you as possible, and this will be difficult if deer are lost in large numbers. Without large forest stands available to deer to hide and seek shelter. from predation, they won't stand a chance against wolf packs that will soon multiply in size. Deer in Scotland will not have forests available to them like in Transylvania, so I think it premature to consider reintroducing wolves at this time.

High predatory losses of prey species not used to the presence of wolves will result in a lot of negative PR, which will play directly into the hands of those that oppose large carnivore reintroduction completely. So in my opinion habitat and natural prey species must come first, then predators later. It would also require a sea change in thinking about land use, especially the conversion from agriculture to a truly wild landscape.

As those reintroduced wolves reproduce (which they will), and form new packs and widen their areas of habituation, at what stage do we start to ‘manage  wolves’, and how will we manage them? Because there will come a point when a cull will be called for. In Britain, there was stiff resistance to beavers being reintroduced, so what do you think the reaction will be to wolves when they start taking livestock? Wolves are opportunistic and if there are sheep available with poor protection, they will prey on them.

Now for some facts:-

Wolf packs travel constantly in search of prey, covering roughly 9% of their territory per day (average 25 km/d or 15 mi/d). The core of their territory is on average 35 km2 (14 sq mi), in which they spend 50% of their time. (1)

The smallest territory on record was held by a pack of six wolves in northeastern Minnesota, which occupied an estimated 33 km2 (13 sq mi), while the largest was held by an Alaskan pack of ten wolves encompassing a 6,272 km2 (2,422 sq mi) area. (2)

Around 44% of Europe is covered by woodland. In the UK the percentage is much lower at 12% , with only 4% being native woodland. The UK is one of Europe’s least wooded countries. (3)

My home lays on the edge of the Carpathian forests in the village of Ojdula (Ozsdola), in Covasna County, Romania. 47% of this county is covered in woodland. (4)