Yesterday, I wrote an article on whether the Lynx should be returned to the UK (returning to the home page will allow you to read it). As a medium sized cat, that hunts by ambush and restricts itself to forests, reintroducing it should be a relatively simple decision. The wolf does not fit into this framework. I do however believe that it too should return to its rightful place as part of the fauna of the wild Britain.
How are wolves similar to Lynx? Well they are predators. Indeed, like Lynx they are at the top of the food chain. So why do we need more than one predator?
Wolves will deal with many of the problems that we have far faster than Lynx. That is not to say that Lynx should be passed over in favour of the wolf, far from it. Merely, due to wolves different hunting strategy they can impact the deer population far in excess of the reduction in the size might suggest.
Whereas Lynx are incredibly secretive, and in many parts of their range are rarely seen even by those working in the field, wolves behave differently.
Wolf howling is actually a means of avoiding bloodshed between wolf packs. By howling they can give some idea of the size of each pack, which means that small packs can simply move on and not be killed. They also use howling as a means of gathering the pack, and communicating information. There are parts of Europe where wolves do not howl as much or in areas at all, as a result of human persecution over the centuries.
This howling has a big impact. The deer in the area are instantly aware that wolves are on the prowl. As a result, as soon as wolves move into an area the deer change their behaviour. They will start moving around far more often, leaving good grazing or browsing areas to recover. They will steer clear of roads and other open spaces as it is easier for them to be caught in these areas, which usually results in a virtual elimination of car crashes caused by deer – and it has to be remembered that there are at least 20 people killed a year, and as many as 200 car crashes occur a day that include a deer.
Indeed, in the Yellowstone national park, the impact on the ecosystem with the return of the wolf was quite astounding. They benefitted the whole ecosystem, though the other animals to the trees to even the course of rivers.
Unlike foxes, wolves do not kill everything that crosses their path. In fact, when on the rare occasion that they predate sheep, they will usually find the most sickly animal. While the farmer is no happier, often the animal that is killed was not healthy anyway.
In other parts of Europe, the return of wolves has seen the local eradication of deer species that humans have bought in from elsewhere. This is only good news, as non-native deer species tend to impact ecosystems to a far greater adverse degree. The likelihood is that Muntjac Chinese water deer and several others would disappear in relatively quick succession (it is true that in some of these invasive deer species cases there are more wild members than in their home land – some of these may want to be caught and taken home). We visited north western Spain a few years ago. One local land owner had spend a very large amount of money bringing fallow deer from France, everyone was eaten the first winter. The first thing that would happen with wolves moving into an area, is that the deer would be seen far less often. While I am sure that I am not the only person who enjoys seeing deer in the UK, the simple fact is that deer are naturally shy and should be mostly unseen; forcing them to return to former behaviours will greatly reduce car collisions and other negative impacts on the human population.
In short, should wolves return? Yes! Will their return be a net gain to the country, between economic and ecosystem costs and gains? Yes. will they cause problems? yes, though simple adaption could greatly mitigate or in many places eliminate the damage. Will they create new economic opportunities – certainly, and indeed farmers who take advantage of these could see their income increase rather than decrease. Will this happen any time soon? That is the big question.
What can we do? As individuals, support any proposed reintroduction (If you are a reader from anywhere in Eurasia above the 12th parallel North in Eurasia and above the 15th parallel in North America, and wolves no longer roam where you live then they are locally extinct and the area would likely benefit from their return. In the UK, although the support for the return of species is growing, regular falsehood from politicians as well as farmers unions and Scottish national heritage mean many are unaware of the benefits of these animals return as well as overly fearful of changes that might have to come about. Increasing numbers of people from countries where wolves are extinct have travelled to places where the wolf population is thriving and see that the problems are surmountable and far smaller than made out. I am not belittling the problem that livestock owners can sometimes face, but in almost all situations these issues can be overcome. Where an animal starts regularly taking livestock, there is of course lethal measures and these should always be available though they should truly be a last resort and not the first reaction as is often the case in a zoo escape. Livestock unions often make an outsized noise on issues like this, in countries like the UK we need a dispassionate look at the natural world. Where possible we need to allow natural processes to be re-established for both the benefit of the human population, and the animals who live alongside us.