There’s a monument near Brora, sixty miles short of John o’Groats, that claims to mark the spot where the last wolf in Sutherland was killed. I pass it often in the car. The wolf, it says, was killed by the hunter polson in or about the year 1700.
I know this story. Polson, so it goes, was standing watch outside the wolf’s lair while his sons laid waste to the pups inside. When the she-wolf returned from the hunt, racing to the aid of her young, she bounded past the hunter and as she did he grabbed her by the tail. From inside the den – now plunged into darkness as Polson and the wolf struggled at its entrance – came, in Gaelic, a shout of alarm: ‘Father! What’s blocking the light?’ To which Polson replied: ‘If the tail comes away at the root, you’ll soon find out!’
It’s an unlikely story, even as such stories go. The memorial itself hedges its bets, doubt sown into the wording: unusually for a work of statuary, those repositories of heroics and hyperbole, its erector felt the need to cite its sources, pass the buck (according to scrope’s ‘art of Deerstalking’), a detail that has always tickled me. The history of wolves is saturated with this kind of machismo and myth-making. Here are all its stock ingredients: the lupine villain, the plucky hunter, the lucky break. Did it really happen? Probably not. Still, whether Polson is to blame or not, there are no wild wolves left in Scotland.
By 1700, they had also long been extirpated from England and from Wales – though their old territory is commemorated in the form of names: Ulthwaite, Wolfenden, Wolfheles, Wolvenfield. Their deaths too: Woolpit, Wolfpit, Woolfall. All across Europe there were centuries of open warfare against the wolf – that universal anti-hero, folkloric villain, sharp-toothed grandmother with a glint in her eye – which saw it hunted relentlessly wherever people lived, persecuted across continents and cultures.
In Europe, those that survived retreated to rare enclaves, finding sanctuary on the high ground of the Apennines, or fleeing east into the debatable lands where Europe bleeds into Asia: Carpathia, the Balkans. There, the wolves in exile clung on, waiting for an opportunity, preparing for their victorious return.
If the trajectory of the European wolf is dispiriting, it is also familiar. We have become well acquainted with graphs that plot the advance of humans against the decline of all else. Everywhere we go, it seems, we wreak death and destruction, chipping away at the natural world.
But over the last century, a different narrative has been writing itself into existence. In Europe, patterns of farming and land use have been changing on a grand scale, as marginal land – too steep or too depleted to be worth the effort of farming – falls into disuse. As the value of livestock has dropped, young people too have increasingly abandoned rural areas for cities. When they do, ever more land often goes unclaimed, unploughed, unrestrained. Some estimate that over the three decades leading to 2030, an area the size of Italy will have been abandoned within the European Union alone.
While our attention has been elsewhere, nature has expanded into the gaps left behind. As annual crops fade away without human input, shrubs and fast-spreading thorns take their place. Then tiny trees take root and the ground starts to bristle with new life as soft, and hard, woods, hoisted from the earth, spread a densely embroidered tapestry of life across the landscape. The still summer’s air is soon vibrating with the tiny wings of insects. Songbirds raise their voices, trail up and down the scales, an orchestra coming into tune. Rabbits, badgers and foxes dig their homes between the roots. Deer graze in shabby pastures, leap tumbledown gates. Along the rivers’ edges, otters dive and beavers build their dams – some reintroduced, many recolonising territory of their own accord. Mice nest in old barns. Wild boar rootle in new woods.
All this Arcadian plenty has tempted in the carnivores, who crept in quietly at first, testing the waters. Lynx: low to the ground, ear-tufted, slinking through the shadows, rarely seen. Some 9,000 of them or more are now thought to live on the Continent, having been hunted to local extinction in western and central Europe by the middle of the twentieth century. Brown bears: 17,000 of them, spread through Scandinavia, the Dinaric Alps, the Carpathian Mountains, Bulgaria, Greece, Cantabria, the Alps . . .
And, of course, wolves. There are an estimated 12,000 of them in Europe now, far more than in the contiguous United States – where the grey wolf was similarly persecuted, until legal protections came into force in the 1970s – and they have now been documented in every single country on the European mainland. In 2017, the first wolf was spotted in Luxembourg for more than a century and the first wolf in Denmark for 200 years. Last year, wolves were confirmed to have set up home in a Dutch national park. These are all crowded countries, intensively farmed and densely populated, and the wolves’ presence there indicates how closely our ranges have come to overlap. Recently, while the residents of Scanno, Italy, were confined inside to halt the spread of Covid-19, four wolves were seen to hunt a herd of deer through the town; they took down a hind and devoured it right there in the street.
Mainly, however, the wolves live where we have ceded ground. Iberian wolves now wander the ghost villages of Galicia, and Eurasian wolves haunt abandoned Cold War-era military sites along the former Iron Curtain. In the early 2000s, they crossed the border into Germany from the dense forests of Poland, finding sanctuary in former army testing ranges and post-industrial ruins. There are now more than a hundred German wolf packs, each numbering five to ten animals, occasionally more. Where we have withdrawn, they have grown. Our loss has been their gain.
Although maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Perhaps their gain could be our gain too; perhaps their return heralds change for the better, for the whole ecosystem. In recent years, scientists have come to appreciate the full impact that an apex predator, such as the wolf, can have upon its wider environment. The seminal case study that guides thinking on this issue is that of Yellowstone National Park, 3,500 square miles of protected land in north-west Wyoming. There, the 1995 reintroduction of grey wolves into the environment after a seventy-year absence has offered insight into the influence of large predators upon the behaviour of grazing animals, their prey.
As far as the elk and mule deer of Yellowstone were concerned, the return of the wolves changed everything. Though they had faced some predation throughout – not least from humans with guns – they had grown used to milling freely through the open landscape, grazing hither and thither. Heretofore relatively peaceful sunlit glades and fragrant sagebrush meadows became gauntlets to run, through which they moved as targets. They grew nervy, hesitant. They kept on the move through the clearings, bunching tightly together in agile, watchful groups. They snatched mouthfuls on the move, and ate less overall.
Around the same time as the wolves were released, the mountain lion population, once hunted to local extinction, was becoming re-established as well – having crept back in from wilderness areas in central Idaho. Under these twin pressures, over a period of about fifteen years, elk numbers halved.
Those that did survive behaved differently too: when the wolves were on the prowl, they retreated to the dimly lit comfort of the woods, where they might wander in clandestine bands. They avoided the cougars, most active at night, by steering clear of landmarks where they might be trapped or surprised from above in the dark – ravines, outcrops, embankments. No longer did they live in an environment defined by its waterholes and pastures, or even by its ridgelines and ravines, but by areas now suffused with danger and relief. A psychological topology, this – one marked with hillocks of anxiety and peaks of alarm. Ecologists know this as ‘the landscape of fear’.
And as the deer’s landscape of fear metamorphosed in the presence of the wolves, so too did the physical landscape that underlay it. As deer numbers fell and grazing habits changed, the willow, cottonwood and aspen seedlings they had been stripping from the clearings were granted a reprieve. Undergrowth thickened. Leafy stands grew up along the river edges. In this way, fear is a force that shapes the world.
Across the Atlantic, European environmentalists were paying close attention. Some were interested in what change these self-willed wolves might wreak upon their old haunts. Others were more interested in, essentially, their application – how wolves might be used as a tool of rewilding and reforestation. Wolves might, they hypothesised, be a way by which ecosystems thrown wildly out of kilter could be brought back into some form of balance. The big bad wolf has returned to favour, in certain ecological circles, at least.
Here in Scotland, red deer have been running rampant for decades. Thanks to the lack of natural predators, and the sporting estates’ habit of feeding them through winter, numbers have more than doubled since 1959, rising from 155,000 to an estimated 400,000. Highland landowners have been pressed into service as ersatz wolves and are now required by law to spend months stalking smooth-skinned hills – bitten down to the quick by hungry mouths – with loaded rifles; and they do so, some more enthusiastically than others. In this way, last year, 80,000 red deer were culled.
Many believe this is nowhere near enough, but it’s a time-consuming, expensive process that swallows up thousands of man-hours each year. For this reason, our old enemy has been looking a lot more attractive of late.
But wolves will not return on their own. We are separated from the wolf packs of continental Europe by the sea; if we want wolves in Scotland, haunting the hills, we will have to invite them in.
LET ME COME IN.
The hunting lodge at Alladale sits on a low rise, overlooking the glens that form the body of Paul Lister’s Highland estate, thirty miles inland from the monument at Brora. It’s a grand, stone-built Victorian country house with bay windows and high ceilings. When I arrive there on a hot summer’s day I find a half-dozen stags dozing peacefully on the lawn, looking sleek and lithe, docile as cows, their antlers trimmed with a velvet of russet and gold.
I step towards them, right up to them, almost – I’m maybe three metres away when they finally heave to their feet and swing to face me, almost defiantly, before trotting into the trees that mark the edge of the garden.
‘No fear,’ comments Paul. That’s the problem.
The land at Alladale is steeply pitched, dramatic, desperately beautiful. It’s a place that will grab you by the hand, by the hair, make you gasp. But as a landscape of fear, this time of year, it is smooth and almost featureless. The deer will head up to the high ground over winter, he says, during the stalking season, when all bets are off. But for now they are safe. ‘They know, well enough, when it’s time to go.’
Paul is a vigorous man, slim and tanned, in his sixties. The heir to a vast fortune made in furniture, he has been sinking a sizeable part of it into the rewilding of this Highland estate since he bought it in 2003. Back then, there were twenty-five deer per square kilometre; today, through a combination of ‘population management’ – that is, shooting them – and extensive deer fencing, his staff have brought that figure down to four or five. These days, he doesn’t call it an estate, but a ‘wilderness reserve’.
Whatever you want to call it, the results of the work are tangible, easily visible to the naked eye. We bump down a track in a Land Rover to view how this is a place shivering with summer foliage, so unlike the naked hollows of the glens I know so well – those cavernous spaces, those glacial curves. Birch and aspen tremble along the river’s edge, swollen with the very last of the snowmelt. Scots pine shin up the very steepest slopes, bilberries blooming in their shadow.
None of this came about by accident. These trees were planted in batches, tens of thousands of them at a time. The oldest are now approaching two decades in the ground, and are maturing in safety, behind fences six feet high that march along the road’s edge and then up and over the ridgeline. Between their branches, unseen, scamper red squirrels: native to the area but boosted with releases from elsewhere. Back at the lodge, wildcat kittens romp in a pen, part of a reintroduction project that could see them set loose within a couple of years. All of it part of the same grand plan.
But what Paul really wants is this: a 50,000-acre enclosure within which wolves run free alongside the deer and the rabbits and the squirrels and the wildcats and all else. The hope is that the wolves would take it upon themselves to ‘manage’ the deer population, starting with the weakest – the old, the sick, the starving – and working up, keeping them on their toes, on the move, relieving the grazing pressure on the hills and thus liberating the land to attain a level of fertility not seen for centuries.
Paul views this as a way to restore a crucial self-righting mechanism to an ecosystem thrown haywire, an ecosystem where ‘nothing makes sense’ any more. Morally speaking, he says, ‘it’s the right thing to do’. Before, we killed the wolves and the bears and the lynx – trapped them, bludgeoned them, flayed them alive – ‘because they were inconvenient to us. What gave us the right to eliminate other species? It’s disgusting. So when we have the opportunity to put something back, albeit in a controlled way, it should fill us with joy.’
Still, his plan – heavily modelled on the game reserves of South Africa – retains a great deal of hands-on interference with the ‘natural way of things’. The wolves themselves would require population management: ‘If you put a pack of wolves in here, they’re soon going to make two packs, then you have to step in and neuter the females. It’s the only way to do it.’ The game reserves do it all the time – ‘play God’ – but perhaps it’s the best we could hope for in a broken world: ‘either that or nothing,’ Paul tells me.
‘Look’, he says suddenly, leaning over the passenger seat and pointing high up to the ridge to the east. ‘Imagine a wolf pack coming over that pass. Can you see it?’
I look up: to bare rock, heather, dry grasses whipped by the wind – and find that I can.
Later, I am driving home in the deepening dusk when suddenly I find myself surrounded on all sides by a dozen sets of flashing eyes. I touch the brake, heart pounding, and silhouetted forms rise up from the gloaming: antlered figures on stony outcrops, cervine faces emerging from the thicket. They are unspeaking presences with an unpredictable, almost chaotic, energy – what seems like rock will reanimate and rush out in front of me, bounding, leaping, with athletic grace.
I hunch over the wheel, foot poised on the brake, eyes narrowed as pale shapes pass soundlessly through the gloom. Perhaps it’s the late hour, the moonlit hills, the solitude of the open road, but their boldness – insolence – makes me uneasy. I slow to a crawl, then stop, as a red hind picks her way purposely across my path, turning her head into the glare of my headlamps with a slow, almost alien, calm.
On islands, over time, wildlife isolated from any natural predators tend to lose their defence mechanisms: their flight response, their sense of fear. ‘Island tameness’, as this is known, is an enchanting evolutionary act of self-harm, producing naive, docile creatures who do not recoil from danger. Take the Falkland Islands wolf, or warrah (Dusicyon australis, literally the ‘foolish dog of the south’), whose dopey, curious demeanour disconcerted, then amused nineteenth-century sailors. It could be killed quite simply by holding a piece of meat in one hand and a knife in the other. It has been extinct since 1876.
Island tameness, as a phenomenon, applies to islands far smaller than our own, but it’s what comes to mind as I face off with the hind. An allegory of our age – not just for the deer and their oblivious manner, but for our own.
Paul’s wolf plan – limited though it is in scope – has met with stiff resistance from almost every corner. Trembling voices speak up at public meetings, frightened for their safety. Bureaucratic hurdles emerge that may prove insurmountable: animal welfare controls prevent the keeping of predators and prey enclosed together; hikers point to their right to roam Scottish lands, enshrined in law. People here, says Paul, have forgotten what it means to live alongside predators. They are obsessed with livestock, their helpless pets. They kick and squeal, refuse to adapt their ways for a wilder future.
What could it cost us, this risk aversion? While we’ve been wringing our hands over a few dozen beavers, refusing even to countenance the reintroduction of lynx, Europe has been rewilding of its own accord. Wolves brook no bureaucracy. They do not believe in borders.
It has been years since we have come face to face with apex predators in our own country. If our fear was a landscape, it would be a prairie, a great plain. The threats we face now are constructions of our devising.
Listen. I’m a woman. I know of men. I have walked city streets with keys pressed between my fingers. I’ve wrenched my wrist from a strong grip, stepped from a moving vehicle as it swung off the road, confronted strangers under street lights rather than leading them to my door. But what has stayed with me is those other times, in other places: that night I woke to hear the breathing of an animal, large and close at hand, through the canvas of my tent; that time, in bear country, I smelled a bestial stench so strong the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and my horse spun and danced beneath me, flaring its nostrils and rolling its eyes. This is a different plane of fear: a fire of the body, a fear without reason.