A certain etiquette should be observed when meeting a wolf. You must roll up your sleeve, bunch your fist and stretch your arm out. Then let the wolf come to you and get your scent – if it wishes. And don't forget the dress code – no alarming bright colours, umbrellas and flapping straps.
I discovered all this on aWalking with Wolves afternoon organised by the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. These are held at weekends and take place in Pennsylvania woods, near the trust's headquarters in Berkshire, and are open to anyone who buys a special "walking membership" – though children have to be at least 12.
We join the other walkers in the woods, arriving at the same time as the wolves: two female North American timber wolves, Duma and Dakota. They're long legged, elegant and silvery – and straining at the ends of their chains. "They want to go," says Sue, a volunteer guide, "so we'll introduce you to them quickly and then set off." We line up, arms outstretched, and the wolves approach and sniff us – establishing us as members of that afternoon's pack.
They set off pretty smartly, but stop to pee and scratch the ground so frequently, like urban dogs sprinkling lamp posts, that no one has trouble keeping up.
The last wild wolf in Britain was shot in Scotland in 1745, and their numbers are decreasing all over the world. The UK Wolf Trust, established in 1995 by the late Roger Palmer, has nine wolves and walks like this go some way towards dispelling the myths that have grown up around this persecuted creature. Social, sensitive and complex, they're far from the vicious animals caricatured in fairy tales.
Being so close to these powerful animals brings the woods alive. They're alert to every drifting scent and tumbling leaf. After they've settled down, we get the chance to meet them close up. I let Duma see me approach, then hold out one fist. She sniffs, then turns her head away. "That's it, she's got your scent," says Colin, her handler. "Don't pat her head or back – they're signs of dominance. Rub her tummy instead." It seems oddly intimate to do this, but she doesn't flinch. "Harder than that," Colin advises. "She doesn't like being tickled." I rub her more firmly and feel the strength within her lithe body.
When the walk is over, we take three young cubs for an energetic stroll back at the trust's centre. As they leave the enclosure, the adults left behind throw back their heads and howl. It's an eerie cry: hard to imagine that it once would have echoed throughout all the forests of Britain.
Further information UK Wolf Conservation Trust 0118 971 3330; ukwolf.orgReuse content