Amid ongoing efforts to rewild parts of Britain, calls are growing for the return of predators such as the grey wolf, which could significantly help to reduce red deer populations. Dr Terry Mabbett considers proposals for their reintroduction and asks if the British grey wolf could thrive again.

BRITAIN is on the way to retrieving some of its larger native mammals, many of which became extinct centuries ago. Wild boar has made its own way back via escapee animals re-establishing in the wild, while organised reintroduction of Eurasian beaver is officially underway.

Next on the list could be Eurasian lynx, a top-tier carnivorous predator poised for return if all goes to plan. Other high-end carnivorous predators like grey wolf (Canus lupus) await consideration. Grey wolf is said to have roamed England and Wales until sometime during the late Middle Ages (1250–1500), and until much later in Scotland.

Official records indicate the last ‘Scottish’ wolf was killed in 1680 in Perthshire. Not far from the village of Killiecrankie in the Scottish Highlands there is a densely wooded gorge through which rushes the River Garry. It is here, according to folklore, that Sir Cameron of Lochiel shot the last wild wolf on mainland Britain. However, other sources claim wolves survived in Scotland up until the 18th century and perhaps as late as 1888.

Be that as it may, there now are calls from rewilding enthusiasts for reintroduction of the grey wolf into Scotland. There will undoubtedly be howls of disapproval from many quarters, so is this a rewilding step too far?

Reintroduction of the grey wolf into Scotland was first mooted in the 1960s and gathered support following successful reintroduction of the red wolf to the south-eastern United States (1989), and grey wolf into Yellowstone National Park, USA, in 1995.

Rewilding as a practical answer to ecological restoration is now receiving much wider publicity and consequently gaining ground, as conservationists call for the return of areas of the countryside to a more natural state. Restoration of once-native species of flora and fauna previously lost from the ecosystem is seen as key to this aim.

Wolves are regarded as ‘keystone species’, exerting direct and indirect effects on their ecosystem by directly influencing their prey and, in turn, plant and animal species progressively down the chain. Wolves are credited for converting grassland into woodland by keeping deer on the move so that they can’t overgraze fragile tree seedlings.

Wolf reintroductions will always face resistance from some members of surrounding communities, especially after centuries of demonisation. However, wolves are actually shy and retiring animals which pose a very low risk to people. Furthermore, the control and deterrence of deer reduces arable crop losses. Wolves have re-established themselves across most countries in Europe and are a huge tourist draw.

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Prospects for reintroduction into Scotland set out by the University of Sussex and the University of Kent indicate that to be effective in directly reducing red deer numbers and allowing nature to recover in the Highlands, wolves may need to be reintroduced to very large fenced reserves dubbed by the popular press as ‘Jurassic Park’.

Researchers say such a fenced area, while additionally helping to limit wolf encounters with residents, farmers and workers in the Scottish Highlands, would provide reintroduced wolves the opportunities to achieve the high population densities (e.g. 80 wolves per 1,000 km²) required to exert the intense level of predation on the very high red deer numbers currently creating serious overgrazing problems. Densities of red deer of up to 40 deer per km² are preventing tree regeneration and ecosystem restoration in parts of Scotland, with over 30 per cent of all native woodlands currently in a sub-standard condition due to deer herbivory.

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Dr Christopher Sandom, lecturer in biology at the University of Sussex, who has a specific interest in rewilding, has said: “Reintroducing the wolf has long been suggested as part of the solution to large red deer populations, but there will always be concerns about how wolves interact with people in any rewilding project like this. This research shows that they could actually have an extremely beneficial impact in terms of making the rewilding process more effective.”

The research team, which also involved scientists from Aarhus University and the University of Oxford (WildCRU), tackled the question of how many wolves would be needed in an area to bring down the number of red deer to a level which facilitates ecological restoration. The team’s analyses suggest a barrier capable of retaining 75 per cent of dispersing wolves within the reserve would be ideal in permitting the wolf population to grow rapidly enough to reduce deer numbers without creating so many wolves that the very existence of the red deer population would be threatened. A successful predator does not wipe out its prey but just manages them.

To fully understand and predict the dispersal behaviour of wolves, the researchers drew on examples from around the world, which reveal that young wolves which leave a protected area often find it difficult to establish a new territory. In Finland, all wolves leaving an expanding wolf population into a reindeer management area were shot before being able to reproduce, while in the Bialowieza National Park in Poland surrounding human activity created a barrier to wolf movement patterns.

Dr Sandom said: “Fences are a common but unpopular tool in biodiversity conservation and would ideally be avoided. But where there are conflicting interests, compromise is needed. Fences particularly constrain animal dispersal but as Britain is an island, this is less of a problem. A fenced reserve in Scotland could be a fantastic opportunity to return large predators to Britain, ecologically restore a large part of the Scottish Highlands, and promote tourism.”

Dr Joseph Bull, lecturer in conservation science at the University of Kent, said: “Wolves are glorious animals, and were originally natives of these shores. The idea of them returning will be thrilling for many people. However, the contribution that would make to global wolf conservation would be small – the larger ecological benefit of bringing them back would be the effect on other native species.”

Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU and co-author of the study, said: “Scotland can lead Europe in thinking about how conservation, large fenced reserves and tourism can reframe rural economies. The role of fencing in the conservation of big predators is globally a hot topic. So far our results are just simulations made from the safety of a desk, but they offer a highly original way of thinking about restoring nature and natural processes.”

Coronavirus lockdowns established across Europe appear to have benefited the grey wolf. April 2020 saw reports of a young grey wolf in the French department of Seine-Maritime, Normandy. If authenticated this would be the first sighting of a grey wolf in northern France for more than 100 years. Grey wolf was driven to extinction in France during the 1930s.

At the same time, Belgium – which is rapidly becoming the crossroads country for grey wolves in Western Europe – announced that a pair of grey wolves were expecting cubs. If northern France and Belgium, with relatively high rates of urbanisation, can safely support a few grey wolves, then there is no good reason why appropriate areas of the British Isles can’t do the same.


Bull, J.W., Ejrnaes, R., Macdonald, D.W., Svenning, J.C., Sandom, C.J. (2019), ‘Fences can support restoration in human‐dominated ecosystems when rewilding with large predators’, Restoration Ecology 27(1): 198-209

Vowles, N. (2018), ‘Large fenced reserves an effective way to bring wolves back to Scotland’, Broadcast News Items, University of Sussex.

Weymouth, A. (2014), ‘Was this the last wild wolf in Britain?’, The Guardian, 21 July 2014.

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