Walk on the wild side-in Reading

Fulfilling a childhood dream, Alister Morgan gets up close and personal with some wolves in the British countryside
I always wanted a German shepherd dog. As a child I saw them as the undisputed king of dogs in a universe where the words pit bull and Rottweiler had no meaning. As the police dog of choice, their ability to sniff out explosives and apprehend criminals made them estimable. But their most alluring feature was a resemblance to wolves.

Centuries of overwhelmingly bad press - blowing down houses, for example - never dulled my fascination for these legendary, mysterious and noble creatures. Were they really out there, somewhere on the fringes of civilisation?

Last week, I located wolves surprisingly close to home - just outside Reading to be precise, where Roger Palmer runs the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. His lovely home doubles as the "UK Wolf Centre" and is separated from the wolf enclosures by a narrow stream. My first glimpse of the wolves caught them standing motionless, staring straight at me.

Roger encouraged me to take a closer look but as I strode off towards the enclosure he added a casual warning: "Try not to slip on the mud and don't get too close to the fence."

Palmer's first wolf used to roam around his house freely. "She was incredibly tame and would play with everyone, but I now know that was the wrong thing to do," he says. "Now I raise at least two together so that they are friendly towards humans but retain wolf characteristics. When you see young cubs in their den, they're wrestling with each other for food from the age of three to four weeks old. This is important for their development. In the wild, only the dominant male and female in each pack will breed."

As I approached the fence, a magnificent North American timber wolf called Kodiac eyed me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. He was the "alpha" male; the dominant beast in this particular pack. His long legs and slender frame suggested speed and gracefulness, while his powerful shoulders and large teeth suggested ... that I should remain a couple of yards away from the fence.

Looking at the wolves I was not sure if I was looking at wild animals at all. Would these furry things refuse to fetch a stick? Every dog, after all, from bulldog to poodle, is descended from these creatures.

Roger Palmer loves people coming to walk with his wolves. He calls them "living ambassadors for education and conservation", taking them into schools and holding seminars aimed at re-education. "Here, people can find out what wolves are really like," he says. "A wolf howling at night frightens people. But the fact is that there has never been a recorded case of a healthy wild wolf attacking an adult human anywhere in the world."

Wolves used to be the most numerous mammal in the Northern hemisphere, but approached extinction in 1974 when 95 per cent of the world's wolves had been exterminated.

In 1999, humans are more tolerant. The Trust allows its members to walk with the wolves around the nearby fields (with trained handlers) at the Centre in the hope that misconceptions about wolves continue to change. When I arrive, Leah Collette. aged18, a volunteer is giving the European wolf cubs breakfast.

These three cubs (six months old) are the first European wolves born in England for 700 years. They'd been sparring happily until breakfast arrived and suddenly play descended into a messy and seemingly violent affair in which Leah struggled to separate the cubs to ensure they all received a fair share. Even at this early age there seemed to be a distinct hierarchy.

The wolves are fed sheep's haunches from the local abattoir in addition to scraps. They consume two to three rabbits a day while the cubs' diet is supplemented by copious amounts of tinned dog food.

Dakota and Duma are 18-month "yearlings" and considerably larger. They have shorter legs than their North American counterparts and a brownish coat which is thickening up for the winter. They pulled impatiently on the thick chains Roger and Leah had slipped over their heads.

I was taught how to "greet" the wolves by offering a clenched fist for them to smell and an open hand between my face and theirs as they jump up in a flash. Dakota and Duma were both exceedingly friendly but in a split second they'd lost interest in me and were towing their handlers towards an open field. Despite efforts to slow their movements, they travelled at a brisk pace through thick grass, sniffing at the hedgerows.

As we turned out of sight from the rest of the wolves, a boisterous chorus of howling rose from the enclosure. This sound may have been familiar, but it nevertheless totally startled me - sending a shiver down my spine and planting a smile on my face at the same time. Dakota and Duma seemed unaffected and dragged us further into the field where a small stream was running.

"I try to let them roam at their own pace as this is essentially their exploring time," explained Palmer. "Wolves are much more intelligent than domestic dogs. They learn from a single experience, which is essential if they are to survive in the wild."

They jumped into the stream and chewed on bushes until something caught their attention in the distance - two deer running across a field. We watched Dakota and Duma frantically follow their scent.

Wolves are experiencing a renaissance in Europe; many countries are seeing rising numbers of wild wolves. Proposals to reintroduce them into the Scottish Highlands (as natural predators for destructive red deer) are gathering steam. The thought of wild wolves roaming the Highlands is slightly unnerving but also attractive. It may be decades before it happens. But with the help of the UK Wolf Centre, it may not be too long before storytellers have welcomed the "big bad wolf" back into human society.

For further information, contact the UK Wolf Conservation Trust (tel: 01189 713 330) at the UK Wolf Centre, Butlers Farm, Beenham, Reading RG7 5NT.