Why rewilding wolves in the UK is a bad idea

“It’s a bit weird, but personally I’d love this country to have a sustainable wolf population,” Ian Coghill tells me after spending several minutes explaining why plans to rewild wolves in the UK are bad ideas. Then he gets back on track. “To do it, you’ve got to bite the bullet. You’ve got to face the fact that human beings have to intervene. This is not a prelapsarian paradise… This is 67 million people with motorways, towns and everything. Stop pretending that you can avoid all responsibility for management by simply walking away and whistling in the dark because you can’t.”

When enthusiasts drool on about reintroducing wolves, they often point to the success in the US, where the animals’ population has grown to the point they are being hunted again. Some call it America’s greatest conservation success as it has taken them off the endangered list. The big difference between the US and Britain is the vast areas of wild land, big enough for predators like wolves to move around without causing too many problems.

Ian Coghill

Yellowstone National Park is one of those places. Wolves were reintroduced to bring down the number of deer, which were eating too many young trees. When the park was created 150 years ago, things were different.

When they established Yellowstone, they got rid of wolves, exterminated the species, and also they got rid of with people,” says Ian, “to create a paradise.”

Across the Atlantic, wolves were hunted in Europe and Russia for hundreds of years. History books tell of attacks on children in London and huge losses of livestock in the countryside. Wolves were eventually hunted to extinction in the UK. Humphrey Head, a limestone outcrop which juts into the sea at the entrance to the Kent estuary, is allegedly the place where the last wolf in England was killed, during the 14th century.

Across the channel, the hunting of wolves continued through the centuries and two world wars. In the 1960s, the Russians were shooting them with machine guns from planes. 

“They tried by all means possible, but even shooting from aeroplanes isn’t that easy because they very quickly learnt to hide under a spruce,” says Magnus Hagelstam. “But by all means possible – that was one of them. So in the 1960s… it was clear that wolves and humans don’t mix. Everybody knew it.

A herd of elk in Yellowstone National Park

Things changed in the 1970s, with the rise of the modern green movement, lobbying for the protection of wolves. 

“They started limiting wolf hunting in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” says Magnus. “Until then, the only objective was exterminate them if possible. And then Finland joined the European Union in 1995 and the wolf became a strictly protected species.”

Magnus is curious though, about how the wolves spread so quickly through Europe, a tiny region compared with Russia, where the animals are concentrated in the south and neighbouring Central Asian countries.

“In the mid and late 1980s, in middle Sweden, wolves appeared from nowhere and the official story goes that they walked from Finland, travelling about 1,000km south and then established themselves. Now this means wolves walked 1,000km through Sweden without leaving one single trace – one single killed reindeer or deer or moose. They just flew there and started multiplying.

“At the same time, wolves started walking in from western Poland and appearing in various places in Germany. Only problem was… there were no wolves in western Poland. At the time there were wolves in eastern Poland, which came from Ukraine. Ukraine has lots of problems with wolves.

“What we see in Finland in the 1990s, after we joined the European Union, the wolf population increased, but at the same time, both the looks and the behaviour of the wolf has changed radically.”

Magnus suspects the animals spreading into Europe were not wolves at all but hybrids. They are shorter in length and have yellowish fur, not the usual grey tones. Wolves or not, they’re causing mayhem in several countries. 

A wolf in Yellowstone National Park.

British rewilders argue the wolves will bring down deer numbers, mainly in Scotland. Ian Coghill says there’s no guarantee the plan, which seems a veiled attempt at stopping hunting and stalking, would work. He also dismisses the suggestion that lynx could do the same job if reintroduced.

“The one thing that Yellowstone clearly demonstrates is the lynx don’t control the deer population,” he says. “There were more lynx in Yellowstone when the deer were out of control than there are now because the wolves compete with them. So the lynx population is no greater. In fact, it’s smaller… So the idea you’re going to let lynx out… just do the maths. There’s supposed to be a million deer in Scotland. If you want to control that population, you’ve got to kill a third every year, 300,000 deer. How many lynx do you need to kill 300,000 deer? especially when they are deer like red deer, which is what the argument’s about.

“They’re only vulnerable to risk to lynx attacks until they’re at about four months old. So you’ve got to kill your 200,000 red deer in a three-four month period. How many deer can a lynx eat and how big is the lynx territory? It’s silly.”

The silliness doesn’t end there. There’s also an ecotourism buzz around reintroducing lynx.

“Ecotourist draw? I can’t think of anything worse,” says Ian. “I mean, it’s nocturnal, it’s solitary, it’s silent. It lives in forest. The only thing you’d see of a lynx is either a baby deer that it’s just eaten or it’s droppings. I don’t know how far you’d drive to see at lynx’s droppings, but I’m not going to go far.

“Like all ecotourism, the people that are going to put up with it, aren’t going to get the money. So if you’re going to say to a sheep farm in Scotland that you have to put up with lynx or wolves or anything else. Are the ecotourists going to pay you to? The one thing ecotourists won’t pay for is seeing something going on land. They think it’s right. So they’ll pay to go to an RSPB reserve, but they won’t pay to go on your estate. They won’t pay to see your lynx droppings, no chance.”

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