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Reintroducing the wolf to Scotland

As a UK based large carnivore charity, we receive numerous enquiries about reintroduction of wolves to Scotland. This section of the website aims to clarify some of the issues surrounding a controversial topic.

In our view, in order for any reintroduction of the wolf to Scotland to be successful, it is first necessary to secure a safe and viable future for wolves in areas of Europe where they have managed to survive human persecution, and in areas where they have returned, aided by legal protection and European Community policies and conventions encouraging conservation of native habitats, flora and fauna. A model of co-existence formulated through this experience can then be applied to the challenge of restoring large carnivores in the Scottish Highlands.

Wolves and Humans aims to present the facts about wolves and share over twenty years experience of working with people who live and work alongside wolves and other large carnivores, in order to enable people to consider and discuss the issues, and hopefully lay the foundations for informed debate about possible reintroduction in the future. There is still a lot to learn from other countries about co-existing with wolves; resolving problems of livestock conflict, impact of human development on wolves, management of wolf populations and many other issues.

Wolf - Photo Peter Cairns/northshots.com

Reintroducing the wolf to the Scottish Highlands was first proposed in the late 1960s, but the idea only started to gain wider publicity and support following the reintroductions of the red wolf to the south-eastern United States in 1989, and the grey wolf to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The media are always happy to report a story about reintroduction, keeping the topic constantly in the public forum; most proposals reported are unfounded, and lacking in scientific credibility.

Although the British government is required to consider the reintroduction of native species under article 22 of the EU Habitats and Species Directive of 1992, any proposal for reintroduction to Scotland would have to be approved by Scottish Natural Heritage, the government organisation responsible for wildlife and habitats in Scotland, and their position remains that they have no plans to consider reintroduction of wolves.

This is not going to change until something persuades them that reintroduction would not be a controversial issue and would be widely welcomed by the whole spectrum of land users and interests in Scotland. There are however pointers for the future; agriculture in Scotland, particularly sheep farming, which has always been one of the major stumbling blocks for returning large carnivores, has changed. From 2005, subsidies based on production, where farmers and crofters receive payment per head of sheep or cattle, were replaced by Single Farm Payments. This means that farms and crofts receive a subsidy regardless of whether livestock are grazed, or crops grown. This change, coupled with incentives such as the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme, which provides grants for regeneration of native woodland and forestry, could see sheep being replaced by woodland restoration in the future, thus increasing suitable habitat for both predators and their prey.

The concept of ‘rewilding’ – returning areas of the countryside to a more natural state and restoring once native species of flora and fauna, including wolves and lynx, has received much publicity in recent years, with journalist George Monbiot and his book ‘Feral’ providing a focal point. A charity, Rewilding Britain, has been set up with the aim of building a wider movement for rewilding and ultimately restoring ecosystems on land and at sea. Media publicity surrounding this moverment is bringing the concept of ecological restoration to a much wider audience than previously, and could help to change public perception of how the countryside should be managed and increase support for restoring species such as the wolf.

In the meantime, there is much valuable work being carried out by conservation groups such as Trees for Life to restore habitat, particularly the Caledonian forest in the Scottish Highlands. There is currently a trial reintroduction of the beaver in Knapdale in Scotland; if this is successful, and is followed by other reintroductions - possibly lynx, as proposed by the Lynx UK Trust, and wild boar, which are already present in many parts of the UK as farm escapees, then the ecosystem in Scotland will in future years be a much healthier place to welcome back the apex predator - the wolf.

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