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  • William Tyler

Rewilding, Wolves, and Donkeys

Down here in deepest Sussex, one of the most interesting and important rewilding schemes has been established on The Knepp Estate (Wilding by Isabella Tree is now available in paperback).


Rewilding is the new watchword for conservationists in this era of environmental crisis. The Knepp Estate itself is part of wider national schemes to reintroduce breeding colonies of storks and families of beavers.


The very word rewilding assumes that there was a past history to the birds and mammals being mentioned.


One animal touted for reintroduction in Scotland is the wolf. The wolf as an enemy, and a deadly one of that, is well entrenched in the nation’s DNA; The Big Bad Wolf and the story of Little Red Riding Hood amongst many other folkloric stories.


Oddly, history shows us that attacks on humans by wolves are rare events. Often when perpetrated the attacks are by lone wolves, and a theory is that many such animals were rabid.


The last wolf killed in England is thought to have died around the end of the first decade of the 16th century, and in Scotland and Ireland in the mid 18th century. Incidentally in the Amazon tv series, Outlander, the wolf hunt depicted is out of historic context.


So why did wolves die out? They were hunted to extinction largely to protect farm animals, notably sheep, and secondly for the thrill of the chase, the Irish Wolfhound.


Paul Williams in his book, ‘Howls of Imagination’, advances the idea that wolves were hunted to extinction in late medieval England to protect sheep. Wool being the very basis of medieval England’s economy. However, it may simply have been a by-product of clearing forests, a process known as ‘assarting’, to create more land for farming (much as is being done today in The Amazon).


Germany and France kept large swathes of forest intact during and after The Middle Ages thus protecting the wolf’s habitat.


The last French wolf was killed sometime in the 1930s – interesting for such modern times no precise date is known. Today, over 500 wolves live in France, mostly in the east. They came back to France naturally, in 1992, when a lone Italian wolf crossed the border. They appear in the 21st century to be spreading more widely across the country.


There are some 2000 wolves over the other side of The Pyrenees in North West Spain and North Portugal. These wolves show no inclination to become French!


If you wish to touch base with French wolf culture you don’t need to leave Britain. Two animals historically used to protect sheep were the Poitou Donkey and The Pyrenean Mountain dog. The dogs are kept as pets in Britain, and Poitou Donkeys can be seen at Devon’s Donkey Sanctuary near Sidmouth. The donkeys are large, tall, and hairy. They defend their flocks by biting and kicking viciously. The dog, by contrast, seeks not to engage with the wolf but rather to frighten it off with its imposing bark and bulk.


Are we going to see wolves crossing the bridge to Skye? Somehow I doubt it.


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