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Wolves are Returning - by Roger Panaman Part Two 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. Part Two of Two:

Wolves and deer
Deer in Britain have had no predator other than humans since wolves were exterminated. It is thought that this situation has contributed to a decline in the overall health of deer populations. What impression would a few hundred wolves make on the Highland's massive deer population? This is a question predator-prey specialists will argue over, with few, if any, firm answers. For example, first, by preying on calves and the very young, wolves might have a disproportionate influence on the number and health of deer in the population which reach adulthood. However, about 50 per cent of red deer and roe deer fawns die young anyway, so if wolves kill only the sick calves they may have little influence on the population. Second, a wolf might kill up to 20 adult deer a year. So 250 wolves, say, might kill around 5,000 adult deer annually. This compares with the 60,000 red deer shot every year. What impact the loss of 5,000 deer may have on the food and sport shooting markets remains to be seen. However, whichever way wolves influence deer numbers, at least their reintroduction will help the deer population to begin to evolve in the presence of their natural predator once more.

Wolves and farmers
Depredation (predators killing domestic animals) is the main problem for any reintroduction of large predators anywhere in the world and the number one problem for the wolf reintroduction in the Highlands. Farmers fear wolves will ignore fleet-footed deer and go for their slower sheep. So to what extent will depredation occur?

Most wolf research comes from North America, where about 40 percent of the world's (roughly 150,000) wolves live. The research shows that where wolves and livestock share the same range, wolves generally take few livestock (usually less than 0.1 percent per year on average over large regions). The research also shows that wolves have a minimal affect on livestock ranches (usually less than 1 per cent per year), and depredation is negligible to the livestock industry.. This shows that wolves do not necessarily slaughter livestock. Why they do not is a question that has yet to be fully answered.
Spain and Italy were the only countries with surviving wolf populations in western Europe. Their wolf populations rose when given legal protection and Spain now has over 2,000 and Italy about 1,000. Researchers conclude that the main factor influencing sheep depredation in both countries is the style of sheep management. Sheep in Spain wander the mountain region largely un-shepherded and depredation is 10 times higher than in the lowlands, where sheep traditionally are watched through the day by shepherds and enclosed at night; 20 per cent of wolves live in the Spanish mountains but cause 80 per cent of losses.11 Similarly, in the Tuscany region of central Italy, most sheep depredation involves flocks unattended by shepherds.As depredation is increasingly researched, it is becoming clear that wolf depredation is not catastrophic (nor an easy problem to solve). Therefore, it is unlikely that the worst fears of farmers in the Scottish Highlands will be realised, but depredation can be expected to be a lot higher than if the sheep were guarded by shepherds. Shepherds work in the Highlands but presently they are too few and flocks are too big to guard the sheep effectively.

Farmers and subsidies
Most sheep farms in the Highlands are not economically viable because of the unproductive soil, inclement weather and remoteness of their markets. They and other farms on poor agricultural land in Scotland (about 85 per cent of the country) depend on subsidies averaging £481m per year to stay in business. Without the subsidies most farms would collapse. This raises an interesting question: given that most Highland sheep farmers are completely dependent on taxpayers' money, can they reasonably object if the public (the taxpayer) want a wolf reintroduction?

The subsidy system appears about to change as the momentum to revise it gathers pace. If the system changes to favour only farms competing successfully in the free market, then most Highland sheep farms could disappear. A new subsidy system should only give payments to farmers if they adequately care for their sheep (up to 4 million lambs die in Britain annually because of poor husbandry),which could stimulate a move to more traditional shepherding. The balance of argument might then shift in favour of a wolf reintroduction. SNH remains evasive.

According to Recommendation 17 of the Council of Europe's Bern Convention, Britain should promote public awareness about wolves and study reintroduction possibilities. And under the European Union's Habitats Directive, Britain must "study the desirability, of reintroducing species in Annex IV". Annex IV species include the wolf.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), is the government conservation body responsible for considering and overseeing the reintroduction of wolves in the Highlands. It erroneously believes that 'Recommendation 17' has been superseded by 'The Action Plan for the Conservation of Wolves (Canis lupus) in Europe which, SNH says, excludes the UK Government from having to take any action at all regarding wolves. SNH also believes that by reintroducing the beaver (another species on Annex IV) it is fulfilling the 'Habitats Directive' and therefore claims it does not need to consider wolves as well. SNH is probably happy to bury talk of wolves for fear of a backlash from landowners and farmers, who control the land, and therefore SNH’s conservation work. However, the very least SNH can do is just to allude to the recovery of wolves when an opportunity occurs, especially in its publications.

Highland Wolf Centre
Public education is a necessary preliminary for any successful reintroduction of large mammals. This is especially true of wolves because a recovery will not succeed without good public knowledge and understanding of them. Therefore, a wolf centre in the Highlands would achieve a great deal. Like other wolf centres, it could have tame wolves for visitors to experience, and to go on outreach to schools and events for people to discover first hand what wolves are really like.

Given the lack of lupine ardour by Scottish Natural Heritage, the centre will have to be funded by donations and develop from wolf ecotourism income. After all, conservation need not, and should not, be entirely dependent on governments. The wolf centre is a great opportunity for private enterprise to show what it can do for conservation.

Part One of Roger Panaman's Article, Wolves are Returning, may be found in the June, 2004 Wolf Howl Animal Preserve Newsletter. Wolf Howl Animal Preserve would like to thank Mr. Panaman, once again,  for allowing us to use his  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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