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They’re thinking of reintroducing wolves in Scotland. While sensible people keep up with Britney’s drug problems and Anna Nicole’s autopsy, around here I follow global wolf reintroductions. This is because while I have little to offer to improve the lives of celebrities, like everyone else in the Rockies I have all the answers about wolves. In a paper (PDF) published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B at the end of January, several scientists suggested that reintroducing the wolf into Scotland would have substantial conservation benefits, especially in controlling an exploding population of red deer. An estimated 500,000 red deer may be roamin’ the Scottish gloamin’, a number perilously close to the “carrying capacity.” The first thing you notice with this report is that there isn’t a single American among the six authors. It seems like if you’re going to try to slip Scottish wolf reintroduction through in the dead of night, you ought to have at least a couple of cowboys who have been around the block on this issue. They’ve got three guys from Norway and three from London. Norway? I’m not sure the descendants of mere Viking marauders are strong enough to face the stresses of reintroducing wolves on an island as small as Britain.

Wolves in Scotland: Lessons Learned

They’re thinking of reintroducing wolves in Scotland.

While sensible people keep up with Britney’s drug problems and Anna Nicole’s autopsy, around here I follow global wolf reintroductions. This is because while I have little to offer to improve the lives of celebrities, like everyone else in the Rockies I have all the answers about wolves.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B at the end of January, several scientists suggested that reintroducing the wolf into Scotland would have substantial conservation benefits, especially in controlling an exploding population of red deer. An estimated 500,000 red deer may be roamin’ the Scottish gloamin’, a number perilously close to the “carrying capacity.”

The first thing you notice with this report is that there isn’t a single American among the six authors. It seems like if you’re going to try to slip Scottish wolf reintroduction through in the dead of night, you ought to have at least a couple of cowboys who have been around the block on this issue. They’ve got three guys from Norway and three from London. Norway? I’m not sure the descendants of mere Viking marauders are strong enough to face the stresses of reintroducing wolves on an island as small as Britain.

The Royal Society report says, “We investigated perceptions of the costs and benefits of wolf reintroductions among rural and urban communities in Scotland and found that the public are generally positive to the idea.”

They add this laconic note: “Farmers hold more negative attitudes.”

Uh-huh. This must be that famous British understatement.

Whenever I write about wolf reintroduction in the Yellowstone area, I get nasty notes from ranchers and their supporters. Just the other day, after I wrote a thoughtful, sympathetic and closely reasoned piece on wolf recovery, a friend of mine accused me of being harsh and insensitive to the hardworking, barely surviving ranchers who drive out each morning to feed wildlife for free out the back of their wagons, only getting as thanks their dogs and livestock murdered at night by gangs of slathering, tattooed, mohawked wolves waving automatic weapons. Well, she may not have put it exactly like that, but you get the idea.

Anyway, if the wolves of Yellowstone are living the life of Riley on the succulent flesh of Rocky Mountain beef, those newly introduced Scottish wolves are going to think they’ve landed in a wolf cafeteria. According to the Abstract of Scottish Agricultural Statistics, there were 8 million sheep in Scotland in 2005, none of whom have seen a wolf for 240 years. The greatest natural danger Scottish sheep have faced since the Battle of Culloden is bagpipe-induced heart failure.

The Royal Society report says, “Wolf predation on sheep will cause conflict. Our model does not consider the impact of wolves on sheep.”

I hate to throw a spanner in the works, but this strikes me as inadequate analysis.

The report concludes that a population of 500 wolves in Scotland would reduce the red deer population to one-quarter of its present level in about 30 years. If they had the same effect on the sheep that would be, let’s see, six million fewer sheep. But the average Scottish sheepman loses £200 a year (about $400) on his sheep operations, so the wolves would be doing them a favor. This argument has been run up the flagpole in the Rockies, too, but it hasn’t been eagerly embraced.

The giddy enthusiasm of a wolf reintroduction effort is stamped all over this Scottish proposal. Eleanor Milner-Gulland of the Imperial College of London, one of the study’s authors, told The Guardian, “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.”

Wolves in Yellowstone have in fact improved the general health of some parts of the ecosystem that have been damaged by elk. But the wolves have been given far more credit for reducing elk populations than they deserve. The number of elk in the northern herd has been reduced by about half, but this is largely the result of management decisions by the state of Montana and of drought.

In a 2005 paper in the journal Oikos, Michigan Tech University biologist John Vucetich and coauthors found that drought and hunters killing elk accounted for almost all of the decline in elk in the area between 1995 and 2004. Human harvest of elk was “superadditive.” That is, for every elk shot by hunters, the population declined by 1.55 elk. “To the extent that harvest and climate largely account for the decline in elk abundance,” they wrote, “wolf predation would have been … numerically minor.”

So what’s all this got to do with Scotland, you may well ask. It’s just that the goal of reducing red deer in the Scottish heather — if heather is where red deer hang out, I’m no David Douglas — by wolf predation might be a tad ambitious. Wolves and ungulates have coexisted for hundreds of thousands of years. They adjust.

“People give wolves these supernatural powers,” says Ed Bangs, Yellowstone wolf recovery coordinator. “It’s not about reality and it’s not about wolves. It’s about what people think reality is, and how they perceive wolves.”

Bangs says that Yellowstone experience with elk indicates that wolf predation is not the primary factor in determining ungulate population levels. When ungulate populations start to trend down from other reasons — like climate or hunting pressure — wolf predation can accelerate the trend. And when they trend up, wolf predation can slow the recovery, but doesn’t reverse it.

A report released this week by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department — whose opinion on this Scotland idea I’d be eager to hear — confirms that wolf predation on elk is secondary to other factors. “We have seen a downward trend in many of Wyoming’s elk herds over this 26-year period” that the study examined, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Chief Jay Lawson told the Associated Press. “That trend is likely due to long-term drought and other habitat related factors. But in half of the herds occupied by wolves, we saw a significantly greater rate of decline after wolves were established compared to herds without wolves. We can’t attribute that increased rate of decline to any factor other than wolves.”

Given Wyoming’s position on delisting the wolf, Wyoming G&F probably didn’t intend with this report to support the general agreeableness of wolves in the ecosystem. But by supporting the bulk of the research on this topic, that’s what they did.

Alan Watson Featherstone, executive director of the Scots charity Trees For Life, says, “The wolf probably has the worst public image of any large animal on the planet, fed by children’s fairy tale stories and Hollywood movies about werewolves. They have a very, very bad PR problem. People think they’re a real threat, that that’s just not true.”

And like everything about the complex relationship of wolves and the world, this statement is partly true. Certainly wolves ought to fire their PR firm and start over. But as to whether they are a “real threat,” that depends on what you’re threatened by.

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16 comments

  1. Scrooge McDuck would have known what to do with Scottish wolves. And speaking of film stars, please show respect for “An American Werwolf in London”!

  2. Missing for two centuries, Scottish wolves would have to be created from whole wolf cloth. So what kind do you use? Spanish? Italian townies? Or do you cross breed some?

    Why not introduce bears, also? They are pretty good calf eaters. Really good calf eaters.

    And while the world reinvents itself, biologically, whey don’t we get some camel like creatures here in the New West? We used to have them. Also, some of the other predators we are missing since the last Ice Age need to be here. Elephants would work, too. Have them eat Gamble’s oak and aspen. Call them natural fire protection. They would adjust to the cold. They must have a huge thermal inertia factor. And hikers, no cow pies to step in: just elephant dung to walk around. Might be an obstacle to mountain biking.

    Or is this just an exclusive wolf only world?

    I like the idea of bears in the British Isles. After golf at St. Andrews, tourists could go watch well bred British dogs or bulls fight bears….you knew that was coming… the bear baiting…

  3. Dan, if you had a Scottish wolf, would you name him Kiltie? If the Queen will not allow the great unwashed to hunt her lands to reduce the red deer population, then she should have her game keepers dart as many stags as they can and surgically geld them. That way when any of royals have an itch to talk a walk on the wild side they won’t have to worry about stags daring them to combat over the ladies, or is that laddies?

  4. George: If pendejo owes money because he wasted public education opportunity by not becoming a qualified wordsmith, might we collect from all who wasted the money? What a windfall for government that would be. Of course, those poor underachieving minorities would owe the most as a group, and that would really arouse some howls from the left.

    Demeaning someone’s ability to write does not advance the discussion. Incorrect use of words should be the domain of lawmakers. That process keeps lawyers employed. We know urban swells don’t like ranchers…. until they make enough cake to buy their own ranch, and then: Katy! Bar the door. The enviros have breached the gate!

    By the whines I hear from legislative reports, I know the highly subsidized public education industry wants more money. And, anyone who names himself after a derisive Mexican term for an undesireable male knows who he is. I would like to know about the vast subsidies. If public land grazing is a subsidy, and you don’t like it, hate yourself when you drive or ride down the road, because you are being subsidized every foot of the way to and from that subsidized education or beer at the cantina. The ranchers pay taxes, too. In fact, that is why the swells in town promoted consolidated school districts: they wanted the tax base of farms and ranches supporting their urban schools.

  5. This was a good, well written article, that raised some worth while points.

    I would add that the east coast of Scotland is the most heavily populated with the landscape given over almost entirely to argiculture, leaving the untillable highlands (where the wolves would be introduced) empty, save for forestry, hunting and, admittedly, flocks of sheep (mostly small flocks roaming in loosely fenced off areas near small towns/villages and immediately surrounding managed fields/crops).

    I am not against the introduction of wolves to Scotland (in fact I’m in favour of the idea – I’m not a sheep farmer and they pose little risk to no risk to people), however for the The Royal Society not to even consider the impact of wolves on the sheep population in the proposal is ridiculous in the extreme.

    If I were wolf I wouldn’t muck about chasing after wild deer once I’d discovered there were much easier to catch and fatter fenced-in sheep waiting to be eaten! I know that farmers (ever ones to moan, it should be said) have issues with dogs getting off the leash and killing sheep as it is.

    I suspect the vast majority of sheep in Scotland (in lowland, east coast farms) would be in no danger whatsoever from the introduction of wolves – but that any sheep north/west of the Highland Boundry Fault would be living on borrowed time.

  6. I feel it’s unusual that the Royal society team didn’t include anyone from Scotland (London and Norway seem rather far away from the Highlands, although the team have obviously spent a lot of time researching public opinions in Scotland). As a young Scot myself, I’m particularly interested to see how the whole thing turns out. The report from the Royal Society said that the computer model didn’t include sheep because including them would have made it too complex, and so would have detracted from the accuracy of the results. Of course, it’s less accurate because the model ignores the sheep anyway… unless wolves were partly re-introduced into a (sheep-less) reserve similar to those in South Africa, as one Scottish estate owner is proposing to do, along with re-introducing other species such as beaver and wild boar. Does the study not also point out that wolves would be introduced to maintain an already lowered deer population and thus keep it low, instead of doing the lowering? Or am I thinking of another study? I am pro-wolf provided the re-introduction is carried out in the “right” way, though like Mr Collins I am not a sheep farmer and so have never had livestock in my care savaged by a wild animal. Your article(s) have been a real help in preventing me from having too much of a pro-wolf bias which might stop me from looking at the other side of the argument.

  7. Well Dan, that was a pretty damn ignorant post with some nasty comments on people from Norway and Scotland.

    Also i dont think you understand how the Scottish political system works. It is under Scottish law this would happen, the royal society report you mentioned is just a group of advisors. Norway is a stronger nation than America, in fact it is the worlds most prosperous country and i think they would know more about wolves in Europe, especially when introducing them to a country like Scotland which is just accross the water from Norway. Ultimately the decision is up to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh so if you have a problem with no Yanks being asked what they think, then you should write to them.

    The Highlands are virtually empty Dan, its just mountains and lochs up there and you may go walking through there for a couple of weeks and meet no one. Space is not an issue, there is plenty of it for wolves in Scotland, hundreds of square miles infact. The issue is how people such as the land owners and the tourists will be affected by the reintroduction of wolves.

    Also, dont call the Scots British or insult them. Same goes for Norway so please just try to show a little respect for other countries. I know thats difficult for you Yanks, but that doesnt mean you cant try.

  8. I think this idea is not be thought through and what think the wolf will do is doesn’t always the same as the actual action. The sub-spices of wolves which live in North America, not suitable for introduction in Scotland. Europe sub-spices are very different from the American ones in the way they live.

  9. why is it that american views on wolves should come ahead of scandinavian or eastern european experts? Indeed as in the states populations are far wider spread than in europe is it not strange that this person should feel the need to pour so much scorn on experts called in from there rahter than america?

  10. Well said Jensen and Tim. And what is wrong with us putting right what our own species as put wrong in the first place. The operative word here is re-introduction. Humans hunted wolves to extinction here in Scotland like so many other countries. How dare our species assume superiorty. Wolves used to keep the deer population under control, taking out the weak from the herds. It’s humans that are the most dangerous species on the planet and judging from most of these posts the most arrogant. AND I’M PROUD TO SAY I’M SCOTTISH AND LOOK FORWARD TO THE RETURN OF THE WOLF. It will be down to farmers to have good animal husbandry techniques to protect their beasts.

  11. British = English or Welsh or Scottish or Northern Irish or Bermudan etc.
    So it is fine to call Scotland British.
    Some people however get confused and say English when they mean British and England when they mean Britain or the UK.
    I want wolves reintroduced and am happy for my taxes to pay for it.

  12. Leo i have lived in Scotland for 30 years having come here from Norway to work on the oil rigs.

    One thing i have learned is that the Scots do not consider themselves British. They are alway Scots first and judging by the increasingly large move to repeal the Act of Union i would also say they dont want much to do with Britian.

    I am happy for Wolves to reintroduced in Scotland too, and help pay for it as i love wildlife. Wolves are needed in Scotland, the Red Deer population is out of control and can only be dealt with by humans by humane killings. This is difficult as you are only allowed to shoot a Deer directly in the heart. if you cant get a clear aim you cant shoot. Wolves would also sort out the problems of other small mammals which are destroying forests and land. Animals are much better at maintaining nature than humans!

  13. Marcus, Wolves belong in Finland. The only reason you would be having trouble with them is because you are not dealing with them rightly.

    Wolves are scavangers as much as hunters and will feed on dead carcases. Not just kill every Deer, Goat, Sheep and Cow they come accross.

  14. Dear (käre) Jensen. I apologize on the behalf of myself and the ignorance of the rural population of Finland. We are apparently going about this wolf issue all wrong. Would you be as kind as to give us some advice in how to solve some of the more problematic conflicts between wolves and people? For instance how can we solve the problem of wolves attacking and killing hunting-dogs in the woods? Is there a way we could convince the wolves not to attack, kill and eat our dogs? How have the Norwegians solved this particular problem, or have they? We look forward to your wise words and kind advice

  15. I agree with all that Jensen had to say. I also live in Scotland. I am a Scot. There is ample room in Scotland for wolves. There is more empty land now than when wolves were wiped out in 1743. There are more deer now than there were in the stone age. The trees are not getting a chance to regenerate, and that is the source of the heather cover that is sometimes conjured into a romantic ideal. It is not romantic. It is a desolation where forest should be. The deer must be stopped. Scotland needs wolves to rebalance at least a part of our ecosystem. Scotland needs other re-introductions as well, but most of all Scotland needs wolves; and independence of course!

  16. Bring Wolves back to Scotland! Scotland needs Wolves! The Deer are eating everything, young trees are getting demolished and soon Scotland will be a wasteland full of Deer, Wolves will save Scotland! Bring them back! Not to mention the Tourists! People would flock to see Wild Wolves in Scotland!