Bringing the pack back: reintroduction of the grey wolf in Scotland

To talk about the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland, we first have to talk about deer. In Scotland the red deer (Cervus elaphus) is the most the most prevalent large herbivore. Inflated deer populations degrade the natural environment through excessive grazing, preventing woodland regeneration, promoting soil erosion and competing with livestock for food. Deer are culled to check the population, but is not always effective; since the 1960s, the red deer population has grown by 75-80% despite culling and trophy hunting efforts. Reintroducing the grey wolf (Canis lupus) could provide a solution by predating deer, potentially reducing their population by 50%.

Aside from a moral motivation to reintroduce wolves on the grounds that we caused them to go extinct, the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland would satisfy an important and utilitarian conservation goal. By reducing deer populations, wolves would return the ecosystem to a state more akin to that which was present before human influence. Evidence for this comes from Yellowstone National Park where wolves were re-introduced in 1995, a reduction in deer population and herd behaviour shifted the entire ecosystem, see below.

godlee fig1.png

Figure 1 – A flow diagram describing the ecosystem changes following wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park (a), and visual evidence of wetland regeneration (right) due to decreased browsing pressure (b). Adapted from Ripple & Beschta (2004).

However, it is important to consider that Yellowstone is very different to the Scottish Highlands, especially from a societal perspective. The Highlands have a much higher human population density (~9.1 km-2) than Yellowstone (~0.2 km-2), increasing chances of interaction between wolves and humans. On these grounds, Hannah Whitford makes a convincing case for keeping the wolf out of Scotland. Yellowstone is largely a wilderness area whereas the Highlands are used extensively for livestock grazing; wolves do kill livestock, causing economic loss to both farmers and governments who may be compelled to provide compensation. Over 10 years in Bulgaria, 2,268 livestock were killed by wolves, this undoubtedly had a negative economic impact on the farmers affected.

john godlee fig2

Figure 2 – Evidence of wolf attacks on sheep near Oslo, Norway.

In Italy compensation for livestock loss costs the government ~1.3 million euros per annum. Additionally, while wolves are unlikely to attack humans, in the past aggressive individuals have had to be shot when they venture too close to civilisation for human safety, this costs money and exemplifies the potential risks wolves pose to humans. Wolves do not always remain in the same range, their ranges shift unpredictably

Although Hannah’s argument is well founded. I feel that some important points are either overlooked or not fully considered. In Yellowstone, eco-tourism brought about by wolf reintroduction has been valued at $35.5 million (£23.3 million), surely this could cover the cost of management of wolf populations, any livestock compensation and still generate a profit. Furthermore, while the overall human population density is higher in the Highlands than Yellowstone, the Highlands are also around three times the size, with a much more clustered population, meaning interactions between wolves and humans may not actually be as frequent or detrimental as suggested.

Ultimately the question boils down to a cost-benefit analysis, should wolves be reintroduced to improve the natural environment, but to the potential detriment of the traditional upland farming community. After all, isn’t this why we drove wolves to extinction to begin with?

By John Godlee

Further Reading:

Nilsen E.B., Milner-Gulland E.J., Schofield L., Mysterud A., Stenseth N.C., Coulson T. (2007). Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management, Proc. R. Soc. B., 274, 995-1002.

Wilson C.J. (2004). Could we live with reintroduced large carnivores in the UK?, Mammal Review, 34(3), 211-232.

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