Wolves in the backyard

In a Youtube video that has been viewed more than 25 million times,  George Monbiot explains with masterful clarity How Wolves Change Rivers. The short film tells the story of Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after an absence of 70 years. Heralded as a successful example of “trophic rewilding” (Svenning et al 2015) – whereby missing “trophic levels” in the food pyramid are re-installed to exert top-down control- the returning wolves are credited with controlling numbers and behaviour of herbivores (elk), thereby allowing vegetation to return. This then has multiple cascading benefits throughout the  eco-system, providing food and habitat for many other species including bears and beavers, and ultimately stabilizing river systems and raising the water table. With stunning photography, the film paints an irresistible picture of holistic ecological restoration through a whole landscape, successfully brought about by the return of one of the most iconic and charismatic carnivores.

How realistic is it? Certainly, there is evidence for many of the beneficial effects of trophic rewilding claimed in the video, including restoration of willow and aspen along riparian zones, and an increase in beaver and bison (Ripple and Beschta 2004), but it is not clear just how uniform these effects are. A 2010 study found that aspen was not recovering in many areas by that time after wolf reintroduction (Kauffman et al 2010). Another study suggested that willow communities did not readily return with the wolves either, since hydrological conditions had changed so much in the intervening 70 years since the wolves were banished (Marshall 2013). In other words, removing a trophic level and then replacing it decades later is unlikely to create a symmetrical effect- too much else will have changed in the meantime.

Moreover, such behaviorally mediated trophic cascades (BMTCs) are highly complex and can have unintended consequences far beyond the immediate aim of reducing foraging. Mesopredator release in the form of dramatic increase in the new top-dog, coyotes, was observed when the wolves left, but when they returned and preyed on the coyotes, this resulted in an increase in longhorn and rodent populations, with consequent impacts on vegetation…(Berger et al 2008). It is a tangled web we weave. She swallowed a spider to catch a fly…

Emma Marris has a nice summary of the literature, concluding that while the powerful image of the role of charismatic carnivores play trophic cascades may be beneficial in resurrecting interest in the conservation movement, the potential downside is unrealistic expectations and possibly the sidelining of complex realities in favour of a good story (Marris 2014).

The appeal of Monbiot’s lyrical storytelling in the video perhaps comes from the strong influence on ecology and environmentalism since their early days of the myth of the “balance of nature” and simplistic interpretations of how the “web of life” works. Our ecological thinking is still strongly influenced by quasi-religious myths about pristine nature and the Fall from Eden caused by humans and their meddling technology (Botkin 2012).

Since Monbiot’s influential book Feral (Monbiot 2013), the prospect of wolf reintroduction to Britain has come to the fore in discussions of rewilding. Wolves have been absent here for over 300 years, so there is perhaps even more reason to be skeptical that predictable, beneficial effects can be expected by their reintroduction to these islands. However, simulations have found that wolf reintroductions to the Scottish Highlands could help control red deer, and public opinion has been found to be fairly supportive in some surveys. Even farmers have not always been as negative as might be expected (Nilsen 2007).

The big question is of course livestock-wolf conflicts. Wolves have been making a dramatic comeback across most of Europe in recent years, largely as a result of stringent EU conservation policy giving them protected status: hunting is illegal unless special dispensation is granted under license. But they may be becoming a serious and widespread problem for farmers: a long article in the Economist this week gives estimates a wolf population of between 12- and 20,000 are eating anything from 20-80,000 domestic animals each year. In many countries, farmers get compensation for animals killed, although apparently the bodies are often hard to find making this difficult; perhaps partly because of this, and the challenge of getting farmers to accept sharing the landscape with carnivores, the policy seems to be moving towards a flat rate subsidy given to farmers who live in wolf country.

Conservationists argue that farmers can adapt to live with carnivores amicably. This was born out by a presentation I saw at the Future of Wild Europe conference in Leeds last week about perceptions of wolves in Saxony, NE Germany. Surprisingly, there had been no recent reports of livestock-wolf conflicts at all. That is not to say that there have not been problems in the past, but subsidies for preventative measures such as guard dogs and electric fencing appear to have helped broker a truce at least in that region for now. A bigger conflict seems to be with hunters, who find in the wolf unwelcome competition for their game. I couldn’t help but wonder if the real tension, and reason perhaps for the apparent compliance of farmers there, is pressure from the other half of the community who are benefiting from the boom in wolf tourism in the region.

Elsewhere, things are not so quiet. Reports from the Southern French Alps, where wolves have found their own way back (presumably) in recent years, show the extent of the impact on shepherds: individual kills are the least of it, with wolf presence severely stressing the flock causing weight loss, and the continual risk of attack from protected animals leading to a sense of helplessness in shepherds, some of whom have felt compelled to give up altogether. Other side-effects include modification of the landscape and a loss of a sense of “wildness” through proliferation of protective fencing, and the large, non-native Pyrrenean guard dogs that have been brought into the area have themselves been reported to have attacked hikers, making the area feel even less safe and possibly impacting tourism (Buller 2008).

Against the backdrop of the strong return of wolves across Europe, it is perhaps surprising to read recent reports that Norway is about to cull most of its wolves. It only has 68 animals, and licenses will be granted to shoot 47 of them. Paradoxically, controlled experiments lethal control measures may not be the best way forward though:

Although it seems obvious that killing a carnivore
about to take a lamb should ensure the latter’s
short- term survival, most lethal methods are applied
indirectly in wholly different situations. Lethal intervention
is usually implemented after carnivores are observed
near livestock or days after a predation event has
occurred, sometimes far from where the attack occurred

(Treves et al 2016).

Given the potential opposition and difficulties carnivore reintroduction is likely to pose to existing landowners, why do people feel so strongly about bringing back the wolf to these islands?

In my own research over the summer in North Wales and the Scottish borders, apart from controlling foraging, I was given reasons such as: wolves have a right to be here for their own sake. We [humans] take up too much space, it is time to give some back for other species. The sense of wilderness, fear and danger is important- it is something we have lost in our modern, coddled and insulated lives. Walking in a landscape with wolves would make us feel more alive.

None of the rewilding advocates I interviewed seriously felt there was a prospect in the near-term of wolf reintroductions however, much as they would like to see it, not in their lifetimes. There is too much controversy and opposition. They would however like to see education programs to help persuade people that we could live happily alongside wolves. They would not necessarily impose that much on everyday life- people can typically live their entire lives in wolf country without ever actually seeing one.

It is also said that were it not for the geographical accident of being an island, wolves would already have re-colonized Britain, just as they have spread through the continent. To counter that, we could say that, being an island is also a natural state, and maybe we don’t need wolves to be everywhere. There are also islands that never had wolves- should we bring them there aswell? As keeping down the deer population- while we might not currently be doing such a brilliant job of it, why should humans not play the role of top predator- is that not, in fact, what we are?

There is also the minor issue that, as mentioned in the Economist article, wolves do sometimes kill people. Statistically, not very many compared to most other forms of death, but perhaps not something that should be lightly dismissed. We have lived without carnivores in our landscapes for  over 300 years, much longer than they were absent for in Yellowstone, and maybe we would find it harder to adapt.

I do wonder – and worry – though, about the “fear” factor- is that really what people want? I also share a thrill at the thought of big scary wild animals in the landscape, but for me, hearing people say they would actively seek a bit more danger evokes images of Grizzly Man– the logical, terminal conclusion of the wish to “go back to nature”. Anecdotally, research on the West Coast of Scotland has observed that community members often feel nervous about large carnivore reintroduction even in areas where they are not planned. That his was in an area earmarked for some level of “rewilding”, but not where there was any proposals for wolf reintroductions,  suggests how the “rewilding” debate has been so strongly framed as something involving animals with big teeth.

Wolves carry a lot of mythological baggage with them, invoking both unreasonable fear of the darkness of the forest- or perhaps the even darker, animalistic side of our own nature- and also unrealistic expectations of a return to some kind of pristine wilderness. In reality, as wild creatures, they are adapting readily to anthropogenic landscapes and hybridising with dogs and other animals,  challenging our conceptions of what constitutes “wild” (Buller 2008).

If the strongest argument for wolf reintroduction is that, how can we expect other countries to protect wildlife if we cannot do the same here, the counter might be that big animals pose a huge challenge to farmers elsewhere also ,and  how much biodiversity value would they really bring to Britain anyway?

Fractious debates between conservationists and farmers are likely to continue, but in Britain at least, there would seem to be a huge amount of other restoration work to be done in any case before there need be serious consideration of bringing back the wolf.


Berger, K.M., Gese, E.M. and Berger, J. 2008 Indirect Effects and Traditional Trophic Cascades: A Test Involving Wolves, Coyotes and Pronghorn Biological Sciences Faculty Publications. Paper 78

Botkin, D.B. 2012 The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered OUP USA

Buller, H. 2008 Safe from the wolf: biosecurity, biodiversity, and competing philosophies of nature Environment and Planning A 2008, volume 40, pages 1583- 1597

Kauffman, J.M., Brodie, J.F. and Jules, E. S. Are wolves saving Yellowstone’s aspen? A landscape-level test of a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade Ecology, 91(9), 2010, pp. 2742–2755

Marshall, K.N., Hobbs, N.T., Cooper, D.J .2013 Stream hydrology limits recovery of riparian ecosystems after wolf reintroduction Royal Society Publishing 2013

Marris, E. 2014  Rethinking predators: Legend of the wolf Nature Nature 507, 158–160 (13 March 2014)

Monbiot, G. 2013 Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life Allen Lane

Nilsen et al 2007 Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management Proc. R. Soc. B (2007) 274, 995–1002

Ripple, W. J. & Beschta, R. L. 2004 Wolves, elk, willows, and trophic cascades in the upper Gallatin Range of Southwestern Montana, USA Forest Ecol. Management 200, 161–181

Svenning et al. 2015 Science for a wilder Anthropocene – synthesis and directions for rewilding research. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA

Treves, A., Krofel, M. and McManus, J. 2016 Predator control should not be a shot in the dark Front Ecol Environ 2016; 14(7): 380–388, doi:10.1002/fee.1312


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