Friday, 19 September 2014

Wildplace 5: Grey Wolf

Part of the aim of Wildplace is to show animals which were once part of the natural fauna of Britain, and one of the most iconic of all extinct British animals is the wolf. Once so numerous in Britain that tributes were levied in wolf skins, and guards were employed to protect sheep flocks, they became extinct in England by the 15th century, and in Scotland by the late 17th century. In Ireland they persisted until the 18th century.

The main reason for the extinction of the wolf in the British Isles is a combination of deforestation and sheep farming. Anyone who has seen what a single dog can do in a night to a flock of sheep can easily imagine what a wolf pack could do, and before the industrial revolution England in particular made much of its wealth from the wool trade. The risk to life and limb of people is not to be underestimated either – although in a wilderness like Canada wolves simply do not come into contact with people, in a crowded island like Britain, with an ever-increasing population and loss of natural habitat and prey, the situation was very different. The repeated conflicts in the medieval period and earlier also resulted in large numbers of unburied bodies, which wolves would scavenge, giving them an opportunity to acquire a taste for human flesh. Wolves would also dig up bodies if not buried deeply enough, and in some places people resorted to burying their dead on offshore islands to protect them.

In mainland Europe wolves suffered similar persecution and were eliminated from most of their range, at least in Western Europe. They persisted in isolated pockets in Spain and Italy, and a combination of reduced persecution, a decline in agricultural populations, and an increase in prey species has resulted in a recovery, although they are still hunted in Scandinavia. Although there have been suggestions for the reintroduction of the wolf to Britain, perhaps in reserves in Scotland, this seems very unlikely to come to anything.

The Wildplace exhibit uses the old woodland on the site to good effect, and the exhibit holds five wolves. They are all young males bred in Scotland, and came from the same parents but two separate litters. Although captive bred, their hunting instincts are in good shape, and they can sometimes be seen mousing for field voles in their enclosure. I expect the occasional squirrel meets the same fate if it makes the mistake of descending to the ground in the enclosure. They can be amazingly difficult to spot, especially if lying up under cover, but this adds to the experience in my opinion. Although this is a non-breeding group at present, in a few years’ time this may change and visitors may see wolf cubs in Bristol woods for the first time in centuries.

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