Wolves were once wild in Scot­land, but will they ever re­turn there?

Once an in­trin­sic part of the Scot­tish land­scape, is it time wolves were fi­nally re­turned to their an­ces­tral home?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Jim Crum­ley Il­lus­tra­tion Nick Hayes/Fo­lio Art

Think of them as wolf trees; the ones that re­mem­ber wolves, the ones that mourn wolves, the ones that stir in me an aware­ness of the ab­sence of wolves. Only trees, of all liv­ing things, hold the mem­ory of wolves.

The old­est Scots pines, the 300–400-yearolds, and the oc­ca­sional truly an­cient yew, know how the brush of wolf fur feels, how the soft, deep slap of their foot­fall on the for­est floor sounds. And per­haps they hand down the sense of wolves to the wolf­less gen­er­a­tions of young trees, so that th­ese will be ready for the wolves’ re­turn. For the wolves will re­turn.

All my life, I have been a rest­less trav­eller among Scot­land’s wild places and an oc­ca­sional trav­eller to the Earth’s north­ern places – Alaska, Ice­land, Nor­way. I try to live close to the land, to lis­ten to the land – what­ever deep­ens my con­nec­tion to it. And some­times, usu­ally among heart­land tracts of the High­lands, I have be­come aware of an ab­sence – I put it down to wolves. Such a tract is the Black Wood of Ran­noch, and the neigh­bour­ing Black Mount woods and moun­tains around Loch Tulla. Such land­scapes have a way of dis­lo­cat­ing time. There is a harder-edged wild­ness to them, and some­times it reaches you like a scent,

or the sound of it is a thren­ody in your ears, for it laments its own in­com­plete­ness.

Ran­noch Moor is an in­land sea that breaks on moun­tain shores, but a sea of rock and heather and lochans and peat that lies at an al­ti­tude of 300m; a sea of red deer and red foxes, of all-but-ex­tinct wild­cats, of ravens and green­shanks and black-throated divers and golden ea­gles, of sum­mer sky­larks and win­ter swans, of wind-weary grass and the half-buried bones of dead trees. Once it was lightly wooded from shore to shore. The Black Wood still sur­vives along the south­ern bank of the moor, an ex­quis­ite woodland of Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen, wil­low and alder.

Make a long still­ness for your­self there, and lis­ten while the land re­calls a stone-still morn­ing of an old, old spring. The very last of the wolves had walked all night in a vain search for oth­ers of her own kind, en­cour­aged by a full moon. The round­est moon was the best for hunt­ing and trav­el­ling. The peo­ple made a story (they made so many wolf sto­ries): the wolf howls at the moon. No. The wolf is most ac­tive un­der the full moon be­cause it as­sists them. It howls most when it is most ac­tive, but it never howls when it hunts.

Can you see her face in the rocks? Ah, but you can’t can you? What you need is a race mem­ory that spans cen­turies. But the trees have known that face all their lives. Her eyes are pale gold – small for the size of the face – and set in jet-black ovals that thicken to­wards their in­ner edges and leak a dark ‘tear’ on each side of the muz­zle. Each eye is also set in a wider cir­cle of tan and dark-grey fur that reaches up into her fore­head, which is mostly black but de­fined be­low her ears with a nar­row echo of the same tan. Her ears are short, erect, for­ward-fac­ing and rimmed in black, and the short fur there is tan and grey and white, and black again at the cen­tre. Her muz­zle is the deep­est shade of tan on top, but abruptly white and pale grey on the sides and round her mouth. Her nose is small and black. She wears a ruff of bright white rimmed with dark grey and black and tan. If you could see her as the trees see her, you would not fear her, but rather you might think her beau­ti­ful.

She was not led there, nor was she pointed there, and she had never been there be­fore, but she knew at once that it was a wolf place. And a wolf place does not stop be­ing a wolf place just be­cause the land runs out of wolves. For there is no such thing as the last wolf; there is no end to the pageant of wolves.

For thou­sands of years – and un­til not so long ago as you might think – this was a land shaped al­most as much by wolves as by ice. Th­ese are quiet places where a soli­tary trav­eller can still feel close to the land it­self. In the far north of the world, and to this day, there is an aware­ness among cir­cum­po­lar tribes of the need to lis­ten

For thou­sands of years – and un­til not so long ago as you might think – this was a land shaped al­most as much by wolves as ice.

to the land. If we were ever to re­learn that skill and take it into old wolf heart­lands like th­ese, we would sense the rest­less­ness in the land. We would learn that the land is ill at ease be­cause our ‘stewardshi­p’ has de­prived na­ture of the es­sen­tial tools it needs to per­form at its ut­most. The ab­sence of wolves in a north­ern hemi­sphere coun­try like Scot­land is the most glar­ing man­i­fes­ta­tion of that ill-at-ease con­di­tion. Be still. Cros­sex­am­ine what you see and hear and feel here. The land will tell you that it feels the ab­sence of wolves.

So, how long have the wolves been gone from Ran­noch? Cer­tainly for more than 200 years, but per­haps not much more. It is per­fectly plau­si­ble that they held out in the moor and the Black Wood for decades af­ter they had been driven from the rest of the land by the peo­ple be­cause… be­cause they were wolves. Only ig­no­rance and ar­ro­gance can pre­sume the hand of man killed the last wolf, rather than that it died old and alone, some­where like Ran­noch.

But there are al­most as many ‘last wolf’ sto­ries in the High­lands as there are trees in the Black Wood. Worse, they still en­dure. The date that re­curs again and again in that dan­ger­ous twi­light where his­tory meets folk­lore is 1743, and in the val­ley of the River Find­horn. The story goes that two chil­dren were killed by a large black wolf (all ‘last wolves’ are large and black) as they crossed a moor with their mother. A wolf hunt was or­gan­ised, but a man called MacQueen, a gi­ant of over 2m (all ‘last wolf’ slay­ers are gi­ants), took mat­ters into his own hands and killed it with a knife.

The story was writ­ten down – MacQueen was ‘quoted’ in di­rect speech – but not un­til the pub­li­ca­tion of a book called The Great Mo­ray Floods of 1829. The writer was a mi­nor aris­to­crat from Ed­in­burgh called Thomas Dick Lauder, who, as it hap­pens, was also a mi­nor nov­el­ist ob­sessed, like so many of that era, by Wal­ter Scott. MacQueen’s Low­land Scots tongue is an undis­guised and breath­less copy of Scott. And here is what MacQueen thinks a wolf looked like, in a novel Thomas Dick Lauder wrote called The Wolfe of Bade­noch:

‘He saw an enor­mous black wolf mak­ing to­wards him, the oblique and sin­is­ter eyes of the an­i­mal flashing fire, his jaws ex­tended and tongue rolling out... The pant­ing and frothy jaws and long sharp tusks of the in­fu­ri­ated beast… The mus­cles of the neck of the wolf are well known to be so pow­er­ful that they en­able the an­i­mal to carry off a sheep with ease…’

So, he knew noth­ing at all about wolves. And the fact that th­ese de­monised wolves are al­ways huge and black is the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin of ‘last wolf’ sto­ries, be­cause there never were black wolves in Eu­rope. When I was re­search­ing my own wolf book, The Last Wolf, it took me half an hour in a li­brary in In­ver­ness to demon­strate con­clu­sively that the ul­ti­mate ‘last wolf’ story which had en­dured for 180 years was the fan­tasy of a Scott groupie.

Back in the real world, a man who does know about wolves, an Amer­i­can wolf bi­ol­o­gist called Paul Er­ring­ton, wrote this

in his 1967 book, Of Pre­da­tion and Life: ‘Of all the na­tive bi­o­log­i­cal con­stituents of a north­ern wilder­ness scene, I should say that the wolves present the great­est test of hu­man wis­dom and good in­ten­tions.’

For 200-plus wolf­less years, then, we have failed the test of hu­man wis­dom. Not to men­tion a fur­ther 500–600 years be­fore that, since hunt­ing kings put a price on wolves’ heads. Red deer were en­cour­aged in or­der to sat­isfy the whims of wealthy hunt­ing par­ties (re­sult­ing in the de­nud­ing of Scot­land’s an­cient forests) and wolves were seen to pose a threat to this key prey species of the royal hunt­ing parks.

But now, now that we know how a wolf re­ally be­haves, now that it is shown to be a hugely ben­e­fi­cial pres­ence for bio­di­ver­sity in north­ern hemi­sphere coun­tries, Scot­land faces a new test of our good in­ten­tions. To­mor­row, some sweet to­mor­row of our own choos­ing (and the de­ci­sion is ours to make and the process is sim­ple and the eco­log­i­cal ben­e­fits im­mense and per­ma­nent), we should de­clare Ran­noch a sanc­tu­ary, and we should fi­nally bring the wolves home.

Why Ran­noch? It has the re­quired beauty, the re­quired grandeur, the re­quired scale; but mostly, it is the nat­u­ral choice for the prac­ti­cal­ity and the sym­bol­ism. For Ran­noch was the forge that fash­ioned the shape and the na­ture of our post-ice-age land. It ra­di­ated glaciers from its vast ice cap in ev­ery di­rec­tion through the cen­tral and south­ern High­lands, fur­row­ing the land with glens and flood­ing them with lochs and sea lochs and firths. Be­sides, travel is in the na­ture of wolves, and over sub­se­quent decades, new gen­er­a­tions can ra­di­ate out­wards from the cen­tre in what­ever di­rec­tions they choose. As they ra­di­ate, they will spread a heal­ing regime for a wounded na­ture.

And this show­piece will be­long only to na­ture it­self, and to the na­tion of Scot­land, and be­cause it is in the cen­tre of the coun­try, we will all be as neigh­bours and feel part of it. We will do what we can to re­store and ex­pand its na­tive habi­tats as far as we are able, re­move the alien traits of the legacy of the ‘sport­ing es­tate’, then stand back, make a re­spect­ful space, let wildlife man­age wildlife, and watch and learn.

Con­ser­va­tion has a 21st-cen­tury buzz­word: ‘rewil­d­ing’. We should be clear about one thing – de­spite the rhetoric of celebrity talk­ing heads, we can­not rewild any­thing. Wild­ness is in na­ture’s gift, not ours. All we can do is re­move from na­ture’s path the ob­sta­cles our species has put there, ob­sta­cles that di­min­ish or deny wild­ness. Hav­ing passed that great test of our good in­ten­tions, we will have the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing that in the Black Wood of Ran­noch, ev­ery tree will be a wolf tree.

WANT TO COM­MENT? Do you agree that wolves should be rein­tro­duced to Ran­noch Moor? Email us at wildlifele­t­[email protected]­me­di­ate.co.uk

From left: hunt­ing was a pop­u­lar pas­time for 14th­cen­tury aris­toc­racy and wolves were killed to pro­tect prey stock; the boggy Ran­noch Moor cov­ers 130km²; wolves are found through­out much of Eu­rope.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.