The wolf was hunted to extinction in Britain around 250 years ago but according to today’s Guardian and the BBC, a new study published by the Royal Society that claims that there could be considerable ecological benefits from the reintroduction of the wolf to the Scottish Highlands
The study's authors say that allowing packs of wolves to patrol the Highlands could solve an emerging ecological problem with Red Deer numbers, which have reached record levels in the last 30 years (Some estimates suggest that there could be 500,000 deer in the Highlands). In many areas they are perilously close to the land's natural "carrying capacity". Culls and “sporting” activities have helped to keep deer numbers static but the wolf could bring about a significant reduction in numbers.
Eleanor Milner-Gulland, of Imperial College London said: "We have shown that reintroducing wolves would significantly reduce the need for expensive culling, and the resulting decline in deer numbers would lead to a marked increase in plant and birdlife biodiversity, and reforesting the area would be easier too." Excessive deer numbers were having an impact on bird species, such as the capercaillie. Wolves would prey on the deer and would help rebalance the ecology, giving other tree and bird species a chance to establish themselves.
Up to 500 wolves could be released across the Highlands, allowing up to 25 wolves a territory of about 1,000 sq km . Within 50 or 60 years, the study’s authors calculate, deer numbers would fall to a quarter of the present levels.
The findings met immediate approval from the charity Trees for Life, which is planning to plant 100,000 native trees this year as part of its programme to rebuild the ancient "Caledonian forest" But Alan Watson Featherstone, its executive director, said the substantial social and economic issues posed by reintroducing the wolf would take at least 20 years to resolve. Government agencies are far less convinced, as are conservation bodies such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the RSPB. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the official conservation agency, and the Deer Commission for Scotland, which oversees deer conservation and control policy, said these problems were far greater than the wolf's backers suggested.
Professor Colin Galbraith, director of science at SNH, said the study was a useful contribution to the debate. "It's a bit theoretical, but it's quite well done in terms of the science," he said. However, the central issue of proving that a reintroduction was "socially acceptable" was actually essential, both legally and practically. Globally accepted guidelines on reintroducing species set out by the World Conservation Union made clear that if an animal was once hunted to extinction by humans, it would be unacceptable to reintroduce that animal where it would again be targeted by man. "That's very, very important. This is where the concept of reintroducing wolves to Scotland probably falls down," SNH has again ruled out wolf reintroduction. Last week, it confirmed that it plans to focus solely on reintroducing sea eagles to Scotland and, over the next five years, to rekindle proposals to bring back beavers, a scheme controversially rejected by the Scottish executive two years ago.
Reintroduction of wolves is also deeply unpopular with farmers. Anna Davies, a spokeswoman for the National Farmers' Union in Scotland, said: "The reintroduction of wolves into the wild would present significant problems in terms of sheep predation, and that is the reason why it is not widely popular among farmers."
Dr Coulson, of Imperial College London said he believed that any reintroduction plan was still a long way from becoming a reality. "Our research is just one of the first steps towards understanding the consequences of a wolf reintroduction in Scotland."
I somehow doubt there will be wolves roaming the Highlands anytime soon but I must admit the idea does appeal.