Howling at the moon or a natural next step?|Richard_F|richard@cfz.org.uk|02/18/07 at 18:54:10|richard_f|xx|0|86.131.86.25|Howling at the moon or a natural next step?
IAN JOHNSTON
ITS gaze had a "wistfulness bred of hunger, as cruel as its own fangs, as merciless as the frost itself".

Even a writer like Jack London - so enamoured with the wolf that he nicknamed himself after it - had a keen appreciation of the age-old fear that mankind has had of this supreme hunter.

When they were hunted to extinction in Scotland in the 18th century, the demise of the wolf was celebrated in dubious tales of nonchalantly brave, modest heroes taking on and defeating an animal demonised as a ferocious, child-killing beast.

But amid a modern rehabilitation of the wolf's image has grown talk of re-introducing it to the Highlands, where numbers of red deer have risen out of control partly because of a lack of predators.

And now a team of scientists from London and Norway has attempted to establish what would actually happen if wolves were let loose in the wild.

In a paper published today by the Royal Society, they conclude doing so would have "significant benefits" to both the rural economy and the eco-system as a whole.

The research came as the US celebrated the return of wolves to Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin where a healthy population of about 4,000 will see them removed from the endangered species lists in those states in the next few weeks.

"Today, we recognise a comeback of the wolves," Lynn Scarlett, US Deputy Interior Secretary, said yesterday, although she admitted that "restoring the wolf to its place in the natural world while addressing conflicts with people is a difficult balancing act".

With Scottish farmers' representatives expressing significant concern about the idea, it may prove unlikely to ever get off the ground.

But biologist Dr Eleanor Jane Milner-Gulland, of Imperial College London, said their research had shown the advantages of allowing wolves to roam the countryside for the first time in nearly 250 years.

" There would be benefits to both the ecosystem and the regional economy if this path was followed," she 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."

Despite culls organised by landowners and farmers, numbers of red deer in the Highlands are believed to be close to the maximum capacity that the environment can support.

Herds trample young trees, affecting forestry plantations, and damage vegetation which supports bird populations and other animals.

Using population modelling, the researchers found that releasing three wolf packs consisting of a dominant pair and two subordinates into the wild would eventually result in a stable population of about 25 wolves for every 1,000km squared, which would equate to more than 600 wolves if the whole mainland area of Highlands and Islands Council was used.

Dr Tim Coulson, the co-author of the paper, said the consequences for deer would be dramatic, but humans need not be afraid.

"If you introduce a predator to a system where there's lots of prey, it is bound to eat it. The deer population would decline to a quarter or a third of what it is now," he said.

"Wolf attacks on humans are incredibly rare, especially from European wolves, but you could never say never. Wolves have been persecuted for many, many years and they have learned to avoid humans."

He said traditional antipathy towards wolves had developed because at one time they competed for the same food source as humans.

"They are grey shadows out at night which do kill livestock. You tend to hear them at night when it's dark and they make a spooky noise. I think it's a beautiful noise, but it is quite spooky.

"But the sort of traditional fairytale view of wolves that you get in Red Riding Hood isn't a fair portrayal."

The researchers surveyed people living in the Highlands and Scottish cities and found 43 per cent would like to see the wolf return to Scotland. Only 14 per cent were against any return of once native animals.

Millionaire landowner Paul Lister is attempting to create a 50,000-acre, fenced "wilderness reserve" centred on his Alladale estate in Sutherland, where he plans to introduce elk this spring.

"I'd love to see brown bears up in our area and also wolves, lynx and wild boar, that would be fantastic," he said.

However he added: "I do not think we are going to see wolves and bears moving round the Highlands unless we have a whopping great big fence to manage them.

"I'm not into releasing wolves into the wild. I don't think that's plausible."

For Peter Cairns, the founder of the Tooth and Claw project, which aims to promote knowledge and debate about predators, there are "very, very sound ecological arguments for the restoration of not only wolves but other species" which helped to shape Scotland's environment.

However, despite this, he doubted it would happen any time soon.

"There are scientific arguments that would put wolves in a good position to be restored, but politically and culturally, it's a different issue," Mr Cairns said.

Those in favour of the move see farmers as among the main obstacles. The Royal Society paper did not actually assess the likely number of lost sheep, but noted that 80 per cent of sheep deaths in the Highlands of Spain are the result of wolves.

"If, as it seems probable, wolf predation on sheep in Scotland would be at a similar level, it would reduce flock sizes," the researchers say.

However they said farmers could be compensated for the loss of any sheep although admitting the "emotional consequences to sheep farmers experiencing wolf predation should not be ignored".

The National Farmers Union Scotland did not rule out the return of the wolf but said any proposed reintroduction "must be thoroughly examined".

"NFU Scotland demands that any trial project be carefully controlled to assess the potential impact on agriculture, other rural businesses, wildlife, the environment and access takers," a spokeswoman said.

"Regardless of the mechanism by which they receive support, farmers do not want the animals they care for being killed by wolves. Animal welfare is of crucial importance and farmers have a duty of care over their animals."

She suggested that far from flocking to the Highlands in the hope of seeing a wolf, tourists would run in the opposite direction. "We're unlikely to attract visitors to enjoy our countryside if it contains animals that they see as a potential danger," the spokeswoman said.

The Scottish Executive said any attempt to reintroduce a species would need to be backed by "a sound scientific case" and pointed out that Scottish Natural Heritage had not identified the wolf as an animal suitable for a return in its Species Action Framework.

"The welfare of the animals themselves would also have to be considered," an Executive spokesman said.

This last point was stressed by John Robins, of Animal Concern, who said the wolf might once again end up as a victim of the animal it fears more than any other.

"Personally I think we've enough problems. Within a few years, farmers and deer estates would be wanting them killed. I think they would be persecuted... there is this stupid fear of wolves," he said.

"We cannot even protect raptors, sea eagles and whatever, from being poisoned.

"To bring back another animal to be persecuted would be a big mistake."

Evil, cunning and terrifying - an image unaltered for centuries
HATED, feared and even magical, wolves have disturbed Europeans for centuries and feature in countless tales.

St Francis of Assisi famously tamed a wolf that was terrorising the town of Gubbio. Everyone who tried to hunt it was killed until one day St Francis went looking for the animal. When the wolf attacked, he made the sign of the cross to it and made a pact on behalf of the villagers that they would feed it if it stopped attacking them.

A common element in legends of wolves is the animals' evil nature and cunning intellect. This includes the "wolf in sheep's clothing" of Aesop's Fables. In this story a wolf finds a discarded sheep skin, puts it on and sneaks into a sheep pen to eat the lambs. The shepherd sees it and chases it off with a stick.

The best-known examples of human-like wolves are in the Grimm fairy tales. In Little Red Riding Hood a wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother and disguises itself as her so it can eat the girl, too.

In The Three Little Pigs a wolf tries to eat three pigs who have built their homes from straw, sticks and stone, by blowing down their houses. Unable to blow down the house of stone, the wolf tries to climb down the chimney and is scalded to death in a cauldron of boiling water.

These myths may be related to the common medieval belief in werewolves. "Were" comes from the Old English for man and werewolves are half man, half wolf. Some stories say there are voluntary werewolves who have made a pact with the devil and turn into wolves at night.

There are also involuntary werewolves whose actions have caused a terrible transformation. In Sicily, a child born during a new moon was thought sure to be a werewolf. In Greece, all epileptics were thought to be werewolves. Belief in werewolves continues: a study in Russia found 80 per cent of farmers still believed in them.

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