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IE: How our wolves were ushered into wildlife history


ANOTHER LIFE: THE ONE WOLF in my life trotted out of nowhere one evening in west Greenland, drawn by the fragrance of curry drifting up the frozen fjord. It paused just metres away, among the rocks around our tents, and regarded us through calm, golden eyes. The three of us sat in freeze-frame, spoons halfway to our mouths, not at all in alarm but in an odd mix of wonderment and surreally familiar response. The wolf was beautiful, a lean and silvery Alsatian, yet “Here fella!” seemed unlikely to work.

One of us moved (David Cabot, reaching for the film camera) and the animal fled. It loped up the shore of the fjord, with one look back, and went off to harass a little band of musk oxen distant across the valley. Defending their calves, they drove it off with lowered horns. It dwindled as a grey dot between the snow banks, a lone wolf hungry in the High Arctic wilderness.

But you’d never know, with wolves. One day in the 1740s, a man set out from Roonith, just up the coast from where I live, in Co Mayo, on a long, hard walk inland through the Sheeffry Mountains to Drummin and Aughagower. Nearing the mountains, at Cregganbaun, he met an acquaintance and, thinking danger was past (I can’t imagine why), gave him his dagger, only to be killed by a wolf farther on in Doolough Valley. This one, or another, was killed near Louisburgh in 1745, becoming one of the many “last wolves” in Ireland.

One county after another, it seems, has a “last wolf”. A Kerry story even trotted one out as late as 1829. But probably the final wolf, as accepted by the zoologist James Fairley and now by the geographer Kieran Hickey, was run down by hounds in 1786 after it killed sheep on Mount Leinster, on the Wexford-Carlow border.

Hickey, who lectures in geography, spent two decades in increasingly rapt research for Wolves in Ireland: A Natural and Cultural History (Four Courts Press, €29.95). He intends to carry on with it. “It is in my blood,” he writes.

With thousands of historical books and documents now online, “there is easily a lifetime of work that could be done” on wolfish place names, lives of Irish saints, folklore research, literary references, the records of the skin trade and more. Bring it on if you know something, he invites his readers.

The export of wolf skins to Bristol (up to 300 a year from medieval Ireland) offered one clue in his painstaking attempt to work out the number of wolves on the island. Human population levels, the amount of secluded forest and mountain, the impact of hunting for skins and Cromwell’s bounties, the viable numbers of wolves to sustain their losses: all these come into the equation. The evidence suggests perhaps 1,000 wolves throughout the 1500s and as late as the mid 1600s. By then, in the wake of the Cromwellian wars, they were becoming common even on the outskirts of Dublin: in December 1652, a wolf hunt was organised at Castleknock.

Perhaps Hickey’s most surprising conclusion is that, if a viable wolf population had survived down to the Great Famine, the subsequent emptying out and abandonment of the uplands would have offered enough space for a small number to survive.

The attitudes to wolves of the native Irish were quite different from those of the island’s colonists. The first accepted them as part of the natural landscape, to be hunted now and then for various reasons: “People were used to having them around, even if not everyone was comfortable with this.” The colonists were appalled by their presence in “Wolf Land” and sought to exterminate them, even ready to kill horses to use as bait in the forest.

Deforestation, rising human population and a changing countryside all ushered the wolf into Irish wildlife history. Given the projects for reintroduction or protection in the US and Europe, including Germany and Sweden, what potential might there be in Ireland? Even our biggest national park, at Glenveagh, in Co Donegal, says Hickey, would not be big or wild enough to sustain one wolf pack, let alone the 40 or 50 from different stocks that would be necessary to prevent inbreeding. And although wolves might seem the answer to our proliferating deer, any number small enough to be tolerated would have insignificant impact.

He ends with concern about Ireland’s lack of control over wolves kept as pets, citing escapes in Cos Fermanagh, Tyrone and Wexford. “Just because wolves look like domestic dogs,” he warns, “does not make them any less dangerous.” Yet one academic from the US, who spent several years lecturing at University College Cork, brought his pet wolf, Brenin, with him and took him on daily walks through the countryside. Big for an Alsatian, thought the locals, but bade the man good day.