Highlanders want return of the big bad wolf

Chilling effect of top predator needed to curb grazing of Scotland's red deer

A A A

The eerie sound of howling wolves might soon be heard in the Scottish glens once more if an ambitious proposal to reintroduce the grey wolf back into the British countryside gets the backing of local landowners and the Government.

Wolves have not roamed the Scottish Highlands for more than 250 years, but scientists believe that bringing the wolf back to Britain is the only effective way of controlling the growing population of red deer which are eating their way through the highland vegetation and destroying the local habitat.

Red deer have no natural predators and hunting has only a limited impact on their numbers, and almost no effect on their grazing behaviour. Wolves, however, can hunt day and night, 365 days of the year, and the chilling effect they have on the grazing behaviour of large herbivores has been documented.

The proposal, outlined in a scientific paper to be published in the journal Biological Conservation, is the brainchild of Adrian Manning, a Scottish-educated ecologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, Iain Gordon of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia and William Ripple of Oregon State University.

They believe there is now overwhelming scientific evidence in favour of reintroducing wild wolves to Scotland, at least in the controlled setting of a large-scale field experiment on an island or fenced area, because of the astounding effects that similar wolf reintroductions have had on boosting local wildlife in other parts of the world.

As a top predator, the wolf is uniquely placed to create what the scientists call a "landscape of fear". The mere presence of a hunting pack of wolves changes the behaviour of red deer, curtailing their tendency to overgraze the Scottish moorland to the point where hardly anything can grow, they said.

This was one of the most surprising findings to emerge from the reintroduction of wolves into America's Yellowstone National Park, which began in 1995. The local elk, which had browsed freely for many decades, suddenly began to avoid certain areas of the park where they felt vulnerable to wolf attacks. The result was that the vegetation had a chance to recover.

Within a few years, tree saplings that usually would have been killed by grazing elk grew into a thick undergrowth that provided a rich habitat for insects, birds and other species. The indirect effects of changing grazing behaviour were at least as important as the direct effect of limiting elk numbers by predation, the scientists found.

"We don't propose a full wolf reintroduction, but rather a large-scale, long-term ecological restoration experiment under controlled conditions, such as an island or a fenced area. Yellowstone hints at what we might find," Dr Manning said.

"Whether we include inhabited areas of land or not is one of the things that would have to be looked at. It is not an insuperable barrier because in parts of Europe people and wolves do live in the same area without there being too much of a problem," he said.

Professor Ripple, who was involved in the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, said that overgrazing by red deer in the Highlands – which have had no natural predators since the demise of the wolf – has almost certainly changed the landscape beyond recognition.

"Wolves were last found in Scotland more than 250 years ago, and as a result it's likely that very few natural areas now bear much resemblance to their native conditions," Professor Ripple said.

Paul Lister, a conservationist and owner of the Alladale Reserve near Inverness, said the proposal makes sense because the wolf has a proven track record in controlling overgrazing by herbivores. "It's what needs to happen," Mr Lister said.

"I'm in favour of it but other landowners and authorities would need to agree to it before anything can be done. It's a case of getting my neighbours on board, because this would take a lot of land," he said.

Scientists estimate the pilot experiment would require at least 800 square miles for several wolf packs to roam freely – a huge area of land for a country the size of Britain.

Eagles, kites and beavers: Three more making a comeback

*Families of beavers were reintroduced into Scotland in May after being hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago. It was the first-ever wild reintroduction of a native mammal into the UK. Their release, into the Knapdale Forest of Mid-Argyll, is for a limited period; the effect on the local habitat will be assessed after five years by independent monitors.

*Sea eagles, which disappeared after the last pair bred in 1916 on the Isle of Skye, have been successfully introduced over a period of many years, beginning on the Hebridean island of Rum in 1975. The latest batch of Norwegian white-tailed (sea) eagles were released in August last year.

*Red kites from Sweden and Germany have been successfully reintroduced into England and Scotland after they were persecuted to extinction in the 19th century.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing