Cry wolf

| 17th December 2005
What remains of the once mighty Caledonian Forest is fast being eroded by an ever-increasing population of deer. Without reintroducing their natural predator, the wolf, to the wilds of Scotland, the forest and its ecosystem is in danger of disappearing forever. By Jeremy Smith

For most of the earth’s history, Scotland was covered in trees – a vast primeval wilderness of birch, rowan, aspen, juniper and Scots pines. On the west coast, oak and birch trees looked down upon a temperate rainforest of mosses, ferns and lichens. When the Romans arrived two thousand years ago, they called Scotland Caledonia, meaning ‘wooded heights’.

Today only one per cent of the once mighty Caledonian Forest – the westernmost stretch of the vast boreal forest that once covered the majority of northern Europe – remains, broken up into 35 isolated fragments. Centuries of deforestation have exacted a heavy price.

About 150 years ago, the forest reached a critical point where the balance of old to new trees became too heavily weighted in favour of the old. Ever since then the forest has grown older and older, shrinking as trees die off and are not replaced by new, younger saplings. And despite many efforts at restocking over the years, the young trees have never been allowed to grow to maturity. Their tender young shoots are being eaten away by none other than the iconic red deer.

While the postcard image may be one of a lone creature, the reality is quite different. With no natural predators except for man in the short hunting season, deer populations have grown and grown, and there are now reckoned to be in excess of 600,000 red deer in Scotland. (And of the six types of red deer found in the country, only two are native. The other four are imported species).

Through its eating habits and the damage done as it tramples around in search of food, the red deer is threatening the very existence of both the remaining forest and many rare animals that depend upon it. When the forest was rich in flora, it was rich in wildlife too. Now though, the European beaver, wild boar, lynx, moose, brown bear and wolf are all gone, leaving only a few birds – the capercaillie, crested tit and endemic Scottish crossbill, which occurs nowhere else in the world, clinging on to what is left.

This ecological imbalance is typical of the UK. Over the years we have destroyed most of our native mammal population to the point where today the only country with less native mammals than us is New Zealand. To put the imbalance into perspective, the biomass of rabbits in Britain exceeds all other wild mammals combined, and rabbits themselves are an introduced species that has only been living in the wild in serious numbers for a little over two hundred years.

There is one last hope, however, an approach currently reaping great rewards on the other side of the Atlantic. But it is one that the British public may have trouble accepting. To save the woods from the deer we need to reintroduce the wolf.

Seeing the wolf for the trees

In the US public antipathy towards wolves was similar to that in the UK, and by the 1920s they had been eradicated in 48 states, apart from Alaska, Hawaii and Minnesota. Among the last to go were those in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. And as with so many of man’s actions, the impact of removing the wolves from the ecosystem was unforeseen. With their natural predators out of the way, the region’s deer multiplied and grazed everything they could get their teeth on. As in Scotland, the deer ate all the young saplings that sprang up, and the mighty forests of Yellowstone began to die.


Then, in 1990, wolves were reintroduced to the park and for the first time in decades the forest began to grow again. Deer, when wolves are present, do not graze where they cannot see all round themselves. River valleys, hollows and dips in the ground have blind spots where deer are loath to graze. In these places the saplings survive and grow to maturity. Once the trees are back, the other plants and animals that dependent on the forest return and the whole ecosystem begins to recover.

While the full impact on Yellowstone will take years to understand, already the signs are promising, often in unexpected ways. Doug Smith, head wolf biologist at Yellowstone, has no doubt as to the extent to which the introduction of wolves has effected the park’s ecology. ‘In the northern part of Yellowstone, in 1996 there was one colony [of beavers]; now there are over nine,’ he explains. ‘They came back because the willow has come back in the last 10 years. We think the willow has come back through wolves changing elk behaviour. Because elk now have to worry about wolves, they don’t camp out in bottomland willow.

‘And because the willow has come back, the beavers have taken advantage of that. They’ve made ponds, waterfowl come to those ponds, more willows grow, warblers and flycatchers move in to the willows that the ponds have created and you’ve got this positive loop of feedback – just because wolves affected elk behaviour which affected willows.’ What’s more, the beavers’ dams slow the water’s flow, improving it as a habitat for fish. So more wolves mean more trout. The phenomenon is called a trophic cascade, whereby one action at one point in an ecosystem results in an unexpected reaction in some other part of an ecosystem.

But what of little red riding hood?

The problem, however, is that that ‘action’ is the introduction of the wolf. Lions, tigers and crocodiles are all very well on holiday, but we don’t want any man-eaters reintroduced into our own country. After all, everyone knows that wolves kill people and eat livestock, making them unpopular with farmers, especially the sheep farmers of the highlands, whose sheep needless to say are second only to the deer in their damaging impact on the woodlands. Wolves are also an easy target for the media to whip up a furore should one poor child get killed.

The reality is that wolves don’t kill many humans. A recent group of 18 international researchers could only find authentic reports of 17 wolf-inflicted fatalities in the last 50 years in all of Europe and Russia and none in North America. Thousands camp each year in US parks such as Yellowstone, and since the wolf’s reintroduction, no one has been killed. Yet in the years 1979-1998, 327 people died in the US as a result of dog bites (of course there are many more dogs than wolves and they live in close proximity to humans, but the point is not about numbers so much as about perceptions). To press the point home, in the UK it is estimated that between 20,000 and 42,000 road collisions or near misses are caused each year by deer, and in a recent five-year period, nine people were killed and 10 seriously injured in Scotland alone as a result of such accidents.

Fantastic Mr Wolf

The wolf’s supposed aggression, reinforced by so many of our childhood myths, does not bear up to scrutiny. One of the pioneers of wolf biology, Adolph Murie, spent hundreds of hours observing wolf packs in Mt McKinley, Alaska in the 1940s. From his studies he learnt that no more than 20 per cent of their interaction was aggressive, and indeed their relations with one another were far more marked for their friendliness.

Far from being the lone savage hunter, the wolf, canis lupis, lives in a remarkably developed social system. The pack is based around family groups of male and female and their cub of the year, plus any offspring who have not yet dispersed. Rarely will outsiders be allowed to join. The parents, being oldest and most experienced, start most activities, from choosing the time and place of hunting to governing who eats most when food it is in short supply. Wolves carefully mark out their territory with urine and faeces, with territories ranging from 100km2 to over 2000km2 in the Arctic. So strict is the heirarchy in the group that while the alpha male (and sometimes the alpha female) urinate by cocking their leg, other males stand on all fours, while lower ranking females squat.

The howling for which wolves are famed is a further part of social bonding, as well as a cry to warn off other wolves. There is also evidence of telepathy among packs, with wolves seeming to react to each other even when out of earshot or sight.

Although the group is closely structured, the alphas are not leaders in the human sense. They do not control the pack, but rather are at liberty to act freely and choose where to go and how to behave. Because of their perceived status, the rest of the pack is most likely to follow. Nor is their position upheld through force. Wolves have an extremely complicated system of body language, and it is through a range of posturing, playfighting and growling that superiority is asserted. They are poker players, not boxers. When the time comes for a new alpha male, ranks will shift without bloodshed.

There are three species of wolf, all in decline. The grey wolf is widely spread across the northern hemisphere and numbers around 150,000 worldwide (less than a quarter of the total deer in Scotland). The red wolf lives only in south eastern USA and there are only 250 left. Likewise there are just 500 Abyssinian wolves, found only in Ethiopia, remaining. It is the grey wolf that conservationists are proposing to reintroduce to Scotland.

As with all wolves, adult greys are about the size of a german shepherd dog. Adult males weigh 20-80kg depending on the climate, with females smaller at 15-55kg. In Europe the males tend to weigh about 40kg. They move along steadily at five miles an hour, but can reach speeds of up to 45 miles an hour.

When they eat, they eat voraciously, eating up to 20 kilos of food at one sitting, but then they can go for weeks without eating at all. And yes, they are meat eaters, so if reintroduced they will kill a few sheep, and there is the tiniest possibility that they might kill an unfortunate human.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want a rich and biodiverse landscape once again in Scotland, and what are we willing to do to get it? Simply planting more trees doesn’t work – the deer eat them. Culling the deer has been tried and failed. Unless one wipes out the deer population, they will always return to eat the trees, which grow far more slowly than the deer can reproduce. Only by reintroducing the missing predator back into the ecosystem can we hope to rebalance it.

Paul van Vlissingen, a landowner in Scotland who is keen to see the wolves reintroduced, sums up the hypocrisy holding us back. ‘We worry about whether it’s remotely possible that the wolf might kill someone in Britain, but we don’t bat an eyelid at the number of people in the Third World who are killed by large mammals. We expect other people to coexist with large mammals, but we aren’t prepared to do so ourselves. It really is rather offensive. We say we don’t want wolves in this country because we like our stalking rights and we don’t want wolves killing our deer. Well, any country in the world could say that and that would be the end of our global megafauna, As it is, we have very little of it left.’

Or as an old German saying puts it: ‘Kein Wolf, Kein Wald’ - ‘No wolf, no forest’.

Special thanks to Ben Panaman, director of the Wolf Trust, for his help in the preparation of this article (

What you can do

All these organisations are actively involved in the conservation of wolves, the widening of public awareness and understanding of the reality about wolf behaviour and ecology, and their reintroduction into the wild.

  • Wolf Trust
    Non-profit organisation educating the public about wolves and advocating a revival of the natural heritage of the Highlands of Scotland through a reintroduction and recovery of wolves. It is seeking funds for the establishment of a wolf centre in Scotland. Website:
  • WWF-UK Campaign for Europe’s Carnivores
    Aims to raise public awareness, challenge negative perceptions of wild predators and maintain and restore viable populations of large carnivores across Europe.
    Tel: 01483 426 444; website:
  • The UK Wolf Conservation Trust
    Visits, by appointment only, to Berkshire-based reserve, which aims to boost interest in wolves and so enhance their conservation.
    Tel: 0118 971 3330; website:
  • Anglian Wolf
    Operates a sanctuary (visits by appointment only) in North Bedfordshire as well as raising funds for wolf conservation.
    Tel: 0870 046 5905; Website:
  • Born Free Wolf Project
    Runs two current campaigns:
  1. Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme
    Raising funds for Dr Claudio Sillero-Zubiri of Oxford University as he works to study and protect the most endangered canid in the world in its last strong-hold, the Bale Mountains.
  2. UK Zoo Wolf Survey
    Collects information for a vital report on the plight of wolves held in British zoos and circuses.
    Tel: 01403 240170
  • Canid Specialist Group
    The world’s chief body of scientific and practical expertise on the status and conservation of all canid species, advising the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). You can sign up for their mailing list or look at the newsletter Canid News; website:

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005


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