What big teeth you have! Ideal for the Highlands

By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 02/02/07):

Little Red Riding Hood was a fantasist. She made up the whole story to explain why she was wandering through the woods in the middle of the night. She cried wolf, as humans have done since earliest times.

Sweet girl, no doubt about that. Terrific outfit. But the truth is that Little Red Riding Hood simply pinned her sexual fears on the usual culprit: the Big Bad Wolf.

Wolves do not eat grandmothers, nor anyone else for that matter. Incidents of non-rabid wolves attacking human beings are virtually non-existent. A wasp sting is far more likely to kill you than a wolf. So far from climbing into your granny’s bed, wolves will do whatever they can to avoid people.

Yet humanity has a more twisted and peculiar relationship with the wolf than any other animal. The wolf’s direct descendant is man’s best friend, but the wolf itself is our worst enemy, the very beast in man, exterminated, reviled, driven to the wildest corners of the world and the outer reaches of superstition.

Even the language reflects our innate wolf-terror: wolf whistle, wolfing our food, keeping the wolf from the door, wolf in sheep’s clothing. As recently as 1933, the English clergyman Montague Summers treated the werewolf myth as reality, a creature “possessed of all the characteristics, the foul appetites, ferocity, cunning, the brute strength, the swiftness of that animal”. The poor wolf is even a fairytale threat to property, huffing and puffing and blowing your house down.

The last British wolf was hunted and killed in the Findhorn Valley in Scotland in 1743. The time has now come to bring them back, for reasons environmental and economic, but also cultural. Reintroducing wolves would demonstrate that conservation means trying to balance nature again, and not merely tweaking it. The wilderness has gone, but “rewilding” at least part of the landscape by bringing back the wolf would also restore some of the lost wildness in our imaginations.

This week a new study published by the Royal Society laid out the argument with rare scientific clarity: reintroducing wolves to the Highlands would control the spread of red deer, reduce the cost of culling, increase plant and birdlife diversity, encourage reforestation, bring tourist revenue and provide new jobs in a region hit by declining agriculture. Farmers would need compensation for some loss of livestock, but since Scottish farms are already dependent on subsidy, the study suggests, the impact of wolves is likely to be more “emotional” than economic.

Attitudes to wolves may be changing. Farmers, naturally, oppose reintroduction, but not nearly as vigorously as the organisations that represent farmers. Opinion polls suggest tentative public support for reintroducing wolves.

Ten years after wolves returned to Yellowstone Park in America, scientists report increased biodiversity across the ecosystem and limited impact on livestock, despite the initially dire predictions of local ranchers.

Reintroducing wolves in Scotland would be bitterly opposed by animal rights campaigners anxious about the trauma inflicted on the wolves’ prey, and by ramblers demanding unfettered access, yet there is surely no more symbolic way to demonstrate a new approach to sharing this cramped planet.

No country has lost a greater proportion of its large animals over the past 2,000 years than Britain. The three most important carnivores — wolves, lynx and bear — are all gone. Instead, vast herds of deer, many of them non-indigenous, chew across the landscape. Partly as a result, only a tiny fraction remains of what was once the great and ancient Caledonian forest. Six thousand years ago we had just 14,000 badgers; now we have a quarter of a million or more; then we had 6,000 wolves, and now we have none.

No one is suggesting that wolves be allowed to wander unconfined and unsupervised, but there is surely enough space in Scotland for some of it to be restored as an ecosystem working in the way it was supposed to. Already, some enlightened Scottish landowners are setting aside large tracts of lands preparatory to reintroducing wolves and other natural predators.

The balance may finally be shifting away from civilised destruction and back towards wilderness. This, in turn, reflects the shift of power in the countryside, away from farmers and traditional landowners, and towards other rural interests, including conservation and tourism.

Yet the cultural fear remains. In large parts of Europe, bears are protected where wolves are still hunted. The same people who condemn Indian villagers for killing tigers (which do kill and eat people) also shudder at the prospect of reintroducing wolves (which do not).

Perhaps the wolf-fear embedded in our DNA dates back to a time when we competed with wolves for food, but most hunter-gatherer societies saw the wolf as an ally and an inspiration. At some point, the relationship grew so close that we let wolves into our homes, to became dogs. It was as sedentary agriculturalists that we learnt to hate and fear the wolf, a savage threat to be ruthlessly extirpated in reality, and persecuted in myth.

Popular culture has sought to rehabilitate the wolf, often investing the animal with a romantic aura as extreme and irrational as the mythical terror that preceded it.

I do not want to dance with wolves, like Kevin Costner, nor run with the wolves, like Clarissa Pinkola Estés. But I would dearly love to see them hunt across the Highlands again. I have only heard a wolf howl once, in Wyoming. It was the most purely feral and entrancing sound I have ever heard.

The American writer Edward Hoagland wrote that “a mountain with a wolf on it stands a little higher”. After the steady ecological diminution of Scotland by man, sheep and deer, a wolf pack howling across the Highlands for the first time in a quarter-millennium might allow the mountains, and us, to stand a little taller.