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Wolves are Returning - by Roger Panaman Part One of Two

Wolves are Returning - by Roger Panaman* (abridged version)

Wolves are making a come-back in Europe and the US as opinions about them change. The last British wolves were exterminated in the Scottish Highlands, where we should now focus our efforts to reintroduce them.

The Scottish Highlands
In Britain, the last wolf population was exterminate in the Scottish Highlands in the seventeenth century. Wolves died off last from the Highland region because of its rugged and remote terrain, which makes it a good place to reintroduce them. More importantly there is plenty of natural food for wolves in Scotland: about 350,000 red deer, 350,000 of the smaller roe deer, and over 100,000 fallow deer and sika deer. In comparison, England is deer-poor and Wales is almost deer-less. With the low human density of the Highlands (one of the last large semi-wilderness areas in western Europe) wolves will come into less conflict there with human activity.

There is a myth that wolves need forest or wilderness to live in. In truth, wolves live in all types of terrain, from deserts to the Arctic. Wolves even live on the outskirts of villages and towns. A wolf pack was even studied living on the outskirts of an east European city. At night the wolves went into town foraging for food. People did not kill them because they thought they were stray dogs. Therefore, wolves are highly adaptable and the Highland landscape does not need reforesting or changing to accommodate them.

How many wolves?
How may wolves could the Highlands support? Wolf density is largely related to food supply: where food is scarce, wolves must search further to find it. Thus a pack's territory (from which it repels other wolves) may be as small as 100 km2 where prey are plentiful or can exceed 2,000 km2 where prey is scarce, as in the Arctic.

The Highlands (25,000 km2) are awash with deer, therefore territories will probably be small. A wolf pack usually consists of fewer than ten individuals. So, as a rough generalisation, say each pack occupies a 500 km2 territory and consists of five wolves, then there could be 250 wolves. Of course numbers would fluctuate, but they would be in the hundreds, not the thousands.

Wolves and people
Will Highland residents and hill walkers be safe among wolves? The first detailed study of attacks by wild wolves on humans in Eurasia and North America has been recently published by 18 researchers from several countries. They reviewed the most reliable records they could find, dating from the 16th century to the present, and identified three kinds of wolf attack:

  • rabid - by wolves who have gone mad because the rabies virus infected their brains;
  • predatory ­ where wolves appear to regard humans as prey; and
  • defensive ­ where wolves are provoked by people to attack, such as when trapped or cornered.

The researchers found that several hundred people have been killed, with the majority of fatal attacks by rabid wolves (rabies does not exist in Britain). There were relatively few predatory attacks and none in North America, and wolves did not kill anyone when acting in self-defence. Predatory attacks were mainly on small children and characterised by lack of natural prey, habituation to people, and wolves living very close to large numbers of children left unattended by impoverished families - the kind of situation still found in the poorest parts of India today, but not in Europe or North America. The authors of the report found that most fatalities in Europe and Russia were before the 20th century. In the last 50 years, despite better recording and better access to reports, they could only find records of 17 people killed in Europe and Russia and none in North America.

Part Two of Roger Panaman's Article, Wolves are Returning, will be added to the July, 2004 Wolf Howl Animal Preserve Newsletter. Wolf Howl Animal Preserve would like to thank Mr. Panaman for allowing us to used this wonderfully informative Article regarding reintroduction in the Scottish Highlands.

*Roger Panaman picked up a PhD in behavioural ecology when living in Fife and now promotes wolf reintroduction in the Highlands. info@wolftrust.org.uk  Read more about reintroducing wolves to the Highlands at www.wolftrust.org.uk

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