English and Scotsmen trekked across the Irish Sea in the wake of the Cromwellian wars and plantation of Ireland. To their dismay, the land they had come to was still home to the mystical wolf, a symbol of Irish power and resilience. At the behest of Cromwell’s Government, high-bounties were laid on the wolves and extermination had begun. Pursued across the country, one by one they were eliminated, until in 1786, the last native Irish wolf was killed, ensuring a good and proper landscape for new proprietors.
Less than 250 years on, we have become even more out of touch with Ireland’s nature. Hundreds of plant and animal species are at risk of permanent extinction. Government policies implemented to protect our ecosystems and biodiversity are failing. Ecologists have been ringing the bell that the world and ecosystems on which human society relies are being broken down and lost. Organisations such as An Taisce and the Irish Wildlife Trust are calling for change in how we protect our landscapes. Astonishingly, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), charged with safeguarding this nature, received only 0.02% (~€12 million) of 2019’s budget.
On October 1st, Eamon Ryan of the Green Party called for the reintroduction of the wolf to Ireland. Every headline and twitter feed across the country lit up with fear, awe, and laughter. Why advocate for this? Ryan was not calling for wolves tomorrow. Rather, the plea was a clever way of compelling the public and media to discuss how we should protect and restore our wild areas. Ryan implored us to “…restore nature in every Irish landscape, neighbourhood, farm, home, and street”, alluding to his party’s proposals to “rewild” parts of Ireland and better fund the NPWS.
Rewilding, in a sense, is simply removing the human stranglehold on the landscape, and giving nature a chance to survive and thrive as it always has. As our understanding of nature improves, our desire to protect and conserve nature grows alongside it. Wolf reintroduction to Ireland represents the capstone to a restored, natural Ireland that should never have been lost, and an Irish society that values nature as its foundation. Wolves spark a primitive fear in many people. For modern humans, this feara is baseless, and causes us to ignore the many positive effects that reintroduction would bring. The present day Irish did not grow up with wolves, and our assumptions about their ecology and behaviour are dramatically skewed. I hope that this article may alleviate some of our fears about these majestic creatures.
Ireland is not too small for wolves, as some people argue, having well in excess of 1000 wolves sharing the land with people only centuries ago. In fact, Ireland had a higher population when wolves were present pre-famine, and now more than ever people live in urban areas rather than countryside. There are also 28 European countries with wolves (excluding Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus), and at least 13 are smaller than Ireland. Ireland also has one of the lowest (43rd) population densities in Europe.
People instinctively fear wolf attacks, but the real-world chance of an incident are astronomically low. In the US, nobody has been killed by a wolf in over 100 years bar a single fatality in Alaska. In the last decade, there have only been 3 attacks across the lower 48 states of the US. For comparison, the average number of shark attacks per decade in the US is 160, and the number of people struck by lightning is 250. They are wary animals, avoiding humans at all costs. Almost all the fear comes straight from storybooks.
From wolf reintroductions abroad, we know that they restore ecosystem balance through cascade effects, altering deer behaviour by moving them from feeding areas and allowing saplings to grow. In 2018, over 41,000 deer were shot in Ireland, demonstrating that sufficient prey numbers exist. With wild prey present, wolves only rarely take livestock. Scientists closely monitor wolf-human conflict, and protective measures for agriculture are constantly improving. In Ireland, farmers would hardly need adjustment of action more than adjustment of attitude.
Just like the farmers of Europe, our ancestors in old Ireland lived alongside wolves for millennia. Our modern farmers have the potential to revive that ancient relationship. Where livestock is taken, compensation can be given and, undoubtedly, released wolves would be closely studied and tracked, and landowners could even be being forewarned if needed. If wolf howls fill Irish ears once again it should instil wonder rather than fear. Wolves stand now as a symbol and opportunity for better stewardship of our ecosystems and wilderness, the heartbeat of Irish heritage. If we persevere in restoring and protecting the wolf, all our species will prosper.
Adam Francis Smith – Science Writer