Yellowstone's successful reintroduction of packs inspired idea to release them into the Highlands
The Observer / Juliet Jowit / September 30, 2007
Ten years ago wildlife experts released 31 wolves into the wild in America's Yellowstone National Park. From that small beginning, hundreds of grey wolves in packs now roam the vast park and beyond in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and have changed the ecology of the region.
This weekend experts in Britain will meet to discuss whether wolf reintroduction schemes could be used as a model to change this country's landscape.
The conference comes as a scheme to create a vast, fenced Highland safari park with roaming wolves in Scotland has just got the go-ahead from planners. Support for going a step further and having wild wolves in Britain after centuries of extinction is also growing, though there is still opposition from farmers, walking groups and some conservationists.
'It's an extremely interesting time in Britain,' said Neil Hutt, a director of the International Wolf Centre in the US, who has flown over to speak to the conference. 'We [humans] have the power to destroy wolves or accept them and have them in the landscape. What are we going to do with that power?'
Wolves once roamed freely across much of Europe, but with the advent of settled farming their forest homes were cleared and they became the enemy of livestock. By the mid-1500s wolves had been hunted to extinction in England and Wales, and two centuries later there were none left in Scotland either. But as awareness of Britain's lost ecological heritage has increased, along with concern about the explosion of wild deer and their voracious appetite for plants and trees, there has been growing support for wolves to be brought back.
Ten years ago, for the first time in centuries in Britain, the UK Wolf Conservation Society successfully bred the first European grey wolves - the original forest-dwelling indigenous sub-species. Earlier this year a report for the Royal Society backed the idea that such wolves should be let into the wild.
This weekend the Wolf Conservation Society has organised its annual conference at Ufton Court in Berkshire around the theme of wild reintroduction, an idea it supports in principle, though co-director Tsa Palmer believes Britain might be too crowded to succeed.
As well as hopes that the wolves would hunt wild deer, support comes from those interested in recreating the long-lost forested landscapes of ancient Britain, where wolves lived with bear, elk and other extinct or rare species.
In Yellowstone, the reintroduction of wolves has been linked to declines in their favoured prey of elks and coyotes. Pronghorn fawn, which are hunted by the coyote, and willow and aspen eaten by the elk have thrived, and the burgeoning vegetation has helped birds and insects prosper too. The wolves have also brought in millions of dollars a year in tourist spending.
Such changes could be felt in Britain, but only if more work is done to reintroduce other extinct species and replant trees in areas of Scotland where reintroductions are most likely, said Richard Morley, a co-director of the Wolves and Humans Foundation. 'It would help, but we have got to acknowledge Scotland has a very degraded environment,' he said.
The supporters of wild wolf reintroductions acknowledge there is still strong opposition, especially from farmers who are worried about livestock, and walking groups who fear the wolves could be a danger to people - although most experts agree humans should be safe.
Scottish Natural Heritage's policy director, Professor Colin Galbraith, also warns there might not be sufficient forest habitat for wild wolves.
These were 'legitimate concerns' and so the only way wolves could be reintroduced was to persuade people it was safe for them and their animals, said Hutt. 'We have to learn conflict resolution,' she said. 'The animals will do fine if we give them a place to live, and we can sit down and talk to each other about how best to manage them and alter to their needs.'