Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
21st January 2016
Adam Weymouth spent a month walking 200 miles across Scotland, from the Alladale estate, where Paul Lister hopes to reintroduce wolves, to Killiecrankie, one of the many places where it is claimed the last wolf in Britain was killed. On the way he spoke to gamekeepers, shepherds, biologists and hikers about how they would feel if they were once again living alongside this most notorious of animals.
In 1743, so the story goes, a man named MacQueen killed the last wolf in Britain. The wolf was huge and black and had been eating local children. MacQueen was a crofter, built like a hero, who took it upon himself to decapitate the beast.
“Our family’s been here for generations and the story’s been passed down,” said David MacQueen, as we sat in his farmhouse kitchen a stone’s throw from where it happened. “I’ve no reason to disbelieve it.” With six hundred head of sheep, he does not appear dissatisfied with the status quo that his ancestor put in place. But centuries later there is talk of rewilding, and what once seemed to be extinction could be no more than hiatus.
There are many such tales in Scotland. Often they are close enough in time and place to pivotal moments in history – MacQueen’s is just three years and several miles from the Battle of Culloden – to ponder whether significant moments in the crushing of the clans and last wolf myths have a tendency to get conflated. Its extirpation as an analogy for the English ‘civilising’ of the Highlands, whilst at the same time honouring the heroism of the last of the clan chieftains.
Certainly the Clearances were helped by the wolf’s eradication: vast flocks of sheep with few shepherds to tend them was feasible only because they no longer had predators. And certainly there has always been a tendency to speak of the wolf and the native in one breath. A Massachusetts law of 1638: “Whoever shall [within the town] shoot off a gun on any unnecessary occasion, or at any game except an Indian or a wolf, shall forfeit 5 shillings for every shot.” (Lopez, 1978: 170). But now, for some that still work the land, talk of the wolf’s reintroduction smacks of an attempt to finish off what the Clearances put in motion.
The wolf topped a recent Countryfile poll as the animal most favoured for a reintroduction, and many of the hikers, mountain bikers and climbers that I met as I walked across the country were supportive of the idea. Yet I found the farmers and gamekeepers who would be forced to work alongside them exasperated by those pushing for the animal’s return. “They’ve all got their woolly hat and their beard,” said Allan, a gamekeeper on an estate outside Tomatin, “and they’ve all been to college and they’re all taught the same thing. That it’d be better if man didn’t exist on this planet. That we’ve got an adverse effect, we’re not part of the ecosystem, that we shouldn’t interfere with anything. But I think we’ve as much right to this place as anybody else. It’s going to cost some people millions. And it’s not going to cost the people who think it’s a good idea a fucking penny.”
Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Estate, is heir to the MFI fortune. His father wasn’t only instrumental in funding the purchase of Alladale, he told me, but inspired it as well. “About 13, 14 years ago my Dad got very ill and I spent 10 weeks with him in intensive care. I had an epiphany after that. I wanted to set up a foundation. I stopped working and bought a highland estate that I could start to restore.” That restoration has come in many forms. 800,000 trees have been planted, and they are rewetting the peatlands, returning them to the functioning carbon sinks that they once were. “But all that’s kind of standard,” he said. “I think we should be doing something a little bit more interesting.” They have brought red squirrels back to the area. They trialled wild boar for a while, but the land ended up looking like a maniac had got at it with a Rotavator. Then they tried moose, but they too struggled to fit in in a landscape largely deforested and ate the few trees that were left. “They’ve come and gone,” he said. “That’s alright. But it’s carnivores that are needed to manage deer numbers. Trees aren’t out of control in Scotland. Deer are. We’ll show people animals up here when the wolves and bears come back.”
When Paul first announced in 2007 that he intended to bring wolves back to Alladale he generated the sort of media furore that most campaigns can only dream of. It has scarcely abated since. There was a six part BBC documentary. There were hysterical headlines. They called him the wolf man, and howling mad. But come 2015 and wolves, thanks to a combination of logistics and red-tape, are still not back at Alladale.
“I honestly don’t believe in reintroductions,” he said, meaning the release of an extirpated, or locally extinct, species back into the wild. “It’s going to take too long. And there’s going to be too much bickering, and debating and debating and more debating. I think that what I’m proposing is pretty self evident. And I think it doesn’t need much debating. It’s going to create a huge attraction.”
Not everyone agrees. A controlled experiment could be a palatable way of exploring the consequences of a wider reintroduction, but in a country increasingly vocal about the need for land reform, it is hard for many to see beyond the fence to the wider ecological benefits. “There’s a lot of history in the Highlands of people thinking they’ve got private kingdoms that they can do with as they like,” said Helen Todd of the Ramblers. The fence would infringe upon the hard-fought for Right to Roam, and Todd is concerned by the precedent it could set. “It would be really dangerous. The idea that you can fence off your entire estate, get a few wolves in there, and you’ve cracked it, you’ve stopped people from walking on huge tracts of land. Private interests, yet again, trump over public right.”
Lister believes that nature and wildlife take precedence. “We’ve done enough to the landscape over the last millennia to want to be able to put something back,” he said. Yet for Robert Gibson, local MSP, it is people that are “the most endangered species of all” in his constituency, and it is reform, not rewilding, that will save them. Todd agrees. “People are part of the landscape too,” she said. “I’m not sure what model we’d use to bring people back, but certainly you can’t have sustainable development if you don’t take account of people as well.”
But maybe wolves could play a part. A study on the Isle of Mull shows that the colonisation of the sea eagle has brought £5 million a year to the island, and supports 110 jobs (Monbiot, 2013: 102). In Sutherland, where Alladale is situated, three-quarters of the land is in the hands of 81 families and just one person is employed for every seven square kilometres (2013: 102). Wolves would create jobs for game wardens and researchers and in catering for the tourists that came to see them. As deer numbers declined the forests would return, along with the activities and jobs that woodland could support. In Europe, where wolf numbers have quadrupled since the 1970s, farmers are learning to live alongside them, and finding secondary incomes offering tours and accommodation. Such a working, breathing, inhabited landscape would strengthen the case for reformation of the land.
Many of those that resist rewilding hear within the word a suggestion that the wild and the human cannot cohabit, and that in living on the land they are taking up space in the city folk’s longed for return to a nostalgic, Edenic past. Maybe a different term is needed. The newly returned beavers I saw living on the River Tay were not inhabiting a wilderness by anyone’s definition of the word. They were splashing about at the end of some fields, a ten minute walk from a twenty-four hour Tesco. Wolves have recently been sighted in both Belgium and the Netherlands, countries with far higher population densities than the Highlands.
In Europe and North America, the wolf’s return is working where those that live on the land feel that they are being listened to; where they are not, they are being shot. In Scotland, the Cairngorms Wildcat Project has in large part been a success thanks to the time taken to build a relationship with local gamekeepers. If similar relationships can be built this time around with those that work the land then maybe, one day, both wolves and people could come back to the Highlands.
Adam Weymouth is a freelance writer, whose work has appeared in many publications, including The Guardian, The Atlantic and Lacuna. He lives on a boat on the River Lea.
Lopez, B. (1978) Of Wolves and Men, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral. London: Allen Lane.