How reintroducing the apex predator could help Scotland’s eroding landscapes
Robert Larsson @unsplash
Legend has it that the last wolf in the UK was killed in 1680, in Perthshire, Scotland. The exact year of the extinction of Britain’s last carnivorous species has been disputed, but the fact remains that the UK‘s wildlife has been without any large canines for centuries. Scotland’s deer population exceeds that of most other European countries, yet there are no predators other than humans to keep them in check, which has its toll on recovering woodland areas.
Many vulnerable natural environments such as peatlands are trampled and overgrazed, which makes them susceptible to erosion. According to Forestry and Land Scotland, the damage caused by deer exceeds several million pounds annually – not counting the cost of fencing to keep the deer from newly forested areas, which amounts to around £5 million each year. To keep their population in check, land managers are culling a shocking number of especially red deer, fallow, and roe deer each year – in 2022 alone, the number amounted to over 102,000 animals. Offering a more natural solution to this problem, campaigns such as Rewilding Britain argue that wolves could provide a natural control mechanism for deer and hence help the entire ecosystem recover – if we let them.
Reintroducing wolves to damaged ecosystems has proven extremely beneficial in other places around the globe. In the Yellowstone National Park, for instance, the reappearance of this large carnivorous predator has surprising and sweeping results. Since 1995, when wolves were first reintroduced to the area, the overgrazed vegetation was able to recover, which resulted in a spike in biodiversity, reduced erosion, and a more stable, self-sustained ecosystem in general.
But despite the ecological benefits a reintroduction of wolves could bring, the UK has shown itself rather reluctant. The main reason for this is, unsurprisingly, concern for livestock. Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Thérèse Coffey proclaimed earlier this year: “I don’t want farmers to constantly have to worry about these issues. […] I won’t be supporting reintroductions of species like lynxes and wolves. We just don’t need to and we won’t.” In a similar case, the reintroduction of the sea eagle in Norfolk was canceled in 2021, as farmers were worried about the raptors being a threat to their animals.
In other European countries, the wolf has already made a comeback – a fact that provokes constant debate. In Germany for instance, between 1500 and 2700 animals have made themselves at home and are thriving. But the debate around the apex predator remains heated since attacks on livestock keep occurring – sometimes despite some protective measures as fences. Wolves usually prefer their natural prey, but much like humans, they are opportunists that have a reputation for being quick on the draw for easy prey.
Hans Veth @unsplash
In the light of this, there is discussion about releasing the wolf, which is currently under strict protection, for shooting. The ‘removal’ of individual problem animals has already been simplified by the courts. As the positive ecological effects of a recovering wolf population are overshadowed by the concern for livestock, the ecological progress that has been made in the last decades seems to become undone.
Still, environmentalists remain hopeful and strive for strategies for a more peaceful and sustainable coexistence between wolves and humans. Preventative measures such as herding dogs, electrical fences and even donkeys have proven effective in the past. In Germany, such measures are funded by the government. Moreover, numerous environmental organizations such as BUND, NABU and LNV have created funds to reimburse farmers for livestock torn or injured by the predator: so the wolves have not returned to Germany at the farmer’s financial expense.
Reintroducing wolves in Scotland will naturally create some challenges, but they could play a key role in restoring a sustainable ecological balance. Some people may need to overcome a fear of "the big bad wolf". Humans should not be the only apex predator roaming the British countryside.
Hans Veth @unsplash