Wild wolves ‘good for ecosystems’
Reintroducing wild wolves to the Scottish Highlands would help the local ecosystem, a study suggests.
Wolves, which were hunted to extinction in Scotland in the late 1700s, would help control the numbers of red deer, the team from the UK and Norway said.
This would aid the re-establishment of plants and birds – currently hampered by the deer population, they write in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
But farmers say more livestock would be killed if wolves are reintroduced.
The researchers’ findings used a predator/prey model to assess the probable consequences on the Highland’s red deer population.
“There has been an ongoing debate about the possibility of reintroducing wolves to Scotland for some time,” said co-author Tim Coulson, from Imperial College London.
“So we thought that we would start the ball rolling by looking to see, using mathematical modelling approaches, what the possible impact of reintroducing wolves into Scotland would have on the red deer population.”
The researchers found that the red deer population was close to reaching the maximum capacity that the ecosystem could support, and that costly culls were not proving to be economically effective.
Since Scotland’s wild wolf population died out, the UK’s largest wild land animal has not had any natural predators to help control its numbers.
“For example, many sheep farmers argue for fewer deer because they are concerned the deer compete with sheep for grazing,” Dr Coulson told BBC News.
“Many of the conservation organisations, especially those trying to reforest areas, also believe their numbers should be reduced.
“Attempts to get forests to come back are going to be hindered by the fact that there are too many deer, which will munch away merrily on any young trees.”
Other groups, Dr Coulson added, were concerned that excessive deer numbers were having an impact on bird species, such as the capercaillie.
The study found that the wolves would prey on the deer and would help rebalance the ecology, giving other tree and bird species a chance to establish themselves.
But farming groups voiced concern and said that the introduction of wolves would hit their members.
Anna Davies, a spokeswoman for the National Farmers’ Union in Scotland, said: “The reintroduction of wolves into the wild would present significant problems in terms of sheep predation, and that is the reason why it is not widely popular among farmers.”
Dr Coulson agreed that farmers would be affected but he added: “Typically, wolves do not go through and take out an entire flock; they will take individuals when they are hungry.”
The study also assessed people’s attitudes towards the idea of releasing wolves into the wild. While the public were generally positive, people living in rural areas were more sensitive.
“Although the farmers were slightly negative, they were not completely adverse to the idea provided they were adequately reimbursed for any lost stock,” he said.
But Miss Davies disagreed: “Any implication that farmers are simply concerned with support payments and not with the welfare and predation of their animals is unjustified.
“Farmers suffer emotional as well as financial losses when they lose stock, as was demonstrated during the foot-and-mouth outbreak.”
Dr Coulson said he believed that any reintroduction plan was still a long way from becoming a reality.
“Our research is just one of the first steps towards understanding the consequences of a wolf reintroduction in Scotland,” he added.