Rewild the Mind

Land of the Lost Wolves is a two-part documentary charting the reemergence of wolves in the US Cascade Mountains (if you missed it it’s available on the BBC iplayer). In part its a success story about the durability of nature and survival against the odds, yet it also serves as a reminder of the challenges faced, not just by wolves, but by every wild animal that comes into contact with humans.

Since European settlers colonised America, the wolf has fallen victim to man’s expansion across the continent, leading to its eradication from the lower 48 states, some seventy years ago. However, it seems they are making a comeback.

The documentary followed a scientific team as they investigated reports of a wolf pack in Washington state. Utilising expert trackers and remote cameras, they eventually found the locally named’ Lookout Pack’ – however initial joy soon turned to despair. Instead of a healthy, breeding pack, only two wolves remained: the alpha male and a juvenile. We later learned that the remainder of the pack had been killed by hunters.

Wolves had been protected in the USA under the Endangered Species Act, but that status was lifted in May 2011. And the killing began again in earnest. Perhaps the saddest part of the documentary was that in 70 years people’s attitudes towards wolves hasn’t changed – certainly those that live alongside them. Without federal protection are we to see history repeat itself?

Not that the UK is a shining example. In fact, we were well ahead of our North American cousins when it came to the extirpation of wolves. It’s not precisely known when the last wolf was killed in Britain, but it was likely to have been in the 1700’s (bears and lynx were exterminated long before) and their absence from the land is certainly noticed.

Wolves are a keystone species, a vital cog in a healthy ecosystem. Wherever top predators are missing the repercussions on the habitat are wide reaching. Nowhere can this be seen more than in Scotland.

To many, Scotland is a beautiful wilderness of lochs and mountains. The true picture is not quite so rosy. Little more than 1% of its ancient forests remain; its hills and valleys are green deserts, gnawed to the roots by rapacious deer that do not allow natural regeneration to take place. Wolves help to disperse these grazing packs, who must adapt to this new threat of predation. Without keystone predators it is left to humans to intervene in artificial management.

Trees for Life is an organisation dedicated to restoring the Caledonian Forest. It relies on volunteers to plant trees and fences to allow saplings to establish themselves, away from the marauding deer.

Elsewhere in Scotland, a private landowner wants to go one step further and reintroduce wolves, bear and lynx onto his estate at Alladale. Paul Lister set up his wilderness reserve in 2004 and has already relocated a pair of European Elk (moose) from Scandinavia that now roam alongside wild boar in a smaller enclosure on the estate.

Yet projects like this face inevitable opposition. The greatest barrier to the reintroduction of large carnivores is misplaced fear and prejudice. Of course there will be teething problems (excuse the pun); livestock may be lost – which will intensify resentment – but that’s when governments need to step in and provide compensation.

One thing the documentary showed is the adaptability of nature. Without interference, habitats can thrive and regenerate naturally. The wolf has had to evolve and adjust to man’s intrusion into wilderness areas, and it’s about time we started demonstrating more tolerance. We need to wake up to the harm we are doing – there is too much beauty in the world for us to destroy it. It’s time for us to re-evaluate our place in this world, but to do that our mindset has to change.

We need to rewild our minds before we can rewild our lands.

Alladale Wilderness Reserve 

Trees for Life

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