Should we bring wolves back to Scotland? A video and a questionnaire

March 29, 2018 • 10:30 am

by Matthew Cobb

It used to be standard practice for final year science students to do a lab-based research project. At the University of Manchester we have broadened the choice of final-year projects so that biology students can also choose to do a Science Media Project. This involves creating a portfolio of writing and other work around a scientific topic. Last year we featured films made by two of my students, and the comments from readers were invaluable.

I’d like to for you help again, by watching this 20-minute video by my student, Kirsty Wells, on the topic of ‘rewilding’. As she explains:

I have produced a short documentary exploring the possibility of wolves being reintroduced into the Scottish Highlands. Having extensively reviewed the literature surrounding the impacts of re-established wolf populations in other parts of the world (Western Europe and Yellowstone National Park), I decided to investigate how these impacts may apply in the context of Scotland. I ventured up North to meet with a few people to discuss what wolf reintroduction would mean to them, and what it could mean for the people of Scotland and Britain more broadly.

Please have a look at her video, and then fill out the quick questionnaire – no personal data are collected! Your comments below would also be greatly appreciated.

45 thoughts on “Should we bring wolves back to Scotland? A video and a questionnaire

  1. Excellent video. I say reintroduce them, but everyone on board has got to be willing to know that it will be overnight happiness.

    The sheep farmer has some legitimate points. He’s is bit stubborn, but he is right, even if I were to be compensated for a lost sheep it would sort of defeat the general purpose of my life. It was would be sad and disheartening. Money is not why I would be a farmer; successful, gratifying farming is why I would be a farmer.

    In the end, engineering controls should be developed and implemented to keep sheep out of wolves bellies. Maybe the local kids could have science fairs that promote ideas that work to mitigate wolf predation. This also has the advantage of getting the kids involved with critically thinking about solutions to problems they may face in the future.

    1. There are some great methods to reduce livestock depredation by wolves – like herd-protecting dogs. There was a neat episode of ‘animal cams’ where they looked at herd-protecting dogs working in France and showed them effectively keeping the wolves at bay.

  2. I think this is a real toughy. A great dream, but regardless of how much education is done, I’m certain that many wolves will be shot even if the program is sold as a trial-run. A lot of suffering.

    1. It wasn’t too long ago that a candidate for Governor in Idaho boasted about killing wolves while they were still on the endangered species list. Some people just hate them, regardless of the facts.

    2. They shoot a wolf with no reason to believe it was predating on their livestock gets sent to jail. Problem solved.

      1. It doesn’t solve the problem for the dead or wounded (suffering) wolves… that was the point of my comment.

  3. I’m all for it. As I said in my survey comments, bears & coyotes have reintroduced themselves in my area (CT) and are now considered a normal part of the wildlife (which they used to be). Nature has to be allowed to find a way.

    1. Coyotes were all west of the Mississippi before 1700. Europeans killed the wolves, which allowed coyotes to expand their range. So they have introduced themselves into CT, as they have in the Chicago suburbs where I live, rather than re-introduced themselves.

      1. Correct. First ime I saw one was in the early ’70’s when the State Wildlife folks were still telling people they didn’t exist.

  4. That was a fantastic, well-balanced documentary. Impressive and very well-done.

    I have many questions and comments after watching:

    1. Is it true that increasing forest cover by 100 hectares would “significantly” reduce atmospheric CO2 levels?

    2. How long and how much can compensation schemes work? And, if there is such a scheme, how will it maintain perpetual funding and ensure that shepherds are compensated properly? Further, the lifestyle and effort question is also important. If the government takes property through eminent domain, compensation doesn’t exactly feel like an equalizing force to the person who lost what they care about.

    3. “Agriculture is the third largest employment sector in Scotland, with one in ten jobs relying on it in some way.” This poses an enormous problem, and would require that a program like this be done nearly perfectly.

    4. “I don’t want to see wilderness. I want to see [farms, and people]. There’s nothing sadder to me…” That’s a weird and unfortunate view; if it’s widespread, I don’t know how it can be counteracted, but I hope it can be. It doesn’t seem like this is the type person with whom you can work jointly on a project like this, and that’s what a project like this requires.

    Ultimately, many of the solutions proposed by the conservationists seems reasonable, but we’ve seen in the past that government schemes that sound reasonable end up either being implemented poorly, abandoned, not given full effort, or starting out well but waning over time. Everything can sound like it will work, but unless there is a robust system with ample funding and dedicated civil servants, the species will be introduced and it will be too late to backtrack when the government doesn’t fulfill its promises fully.

    Additionally, I imagine that, if wolves are reintroduced and more money and time is spent on that part of the project than on coming up with ways to and funding for protecting farmers and their businesses/lifestyles, it will breed an enormous amount of resentment among farming communities and perhaps even the wider population. Such resentment could result in opposition to future conservation efforts and other environmental initiatives in general. It seems that many farming communities already have attitudes like this because of a (possible?) history of conservationists failing to take their needs into account, and/or ignoring their issues, and/or seeming to care more about the environment than the farmers, at least as reflected in their practices.

    If this is to be done, it has to be done exactly right, or it can have far-reaching consequences on much more than just wolves and forests. It’s a sign of a great documentary when I have questions for both sides and can’t come to a conclusion. Excellent job done!

    1. As Ms. Wells and the Scotland wildlife biologists are well aware, many of the questions you ask have already been reckoned with here in the States. In addition to the spectacularly surprising data on the ecosystem-wide effects of the Yellowstone reintroduction, the other two projects I know the most about are taking place in Oregon and Michigan. I’m sure the Scottish wildlife agencies have been studying the experiences of all these projects with special attention to how they’ve fared with the local farmers.

    1. I’ve always wondered about that, would the werewolf have not attacked just because they stayed on the road? Is it some sort of variation on ‘if you see the Buddha on the raod kill him’? I want to know!

  5. My two cents:

    Well done

    Excellent topic

    I have heard of this idea before, of course.

    Overall, the interview style works very well. I think both the … can’t recall the names… farmer and the scientist (?) both say compelling things, but both also say things where I say to myself “Well, sure but..” or “Sounds good in theory”, all the way to “I’d need to know more about that.” disclaimer : I don’t know anything about what they know.

    I would NOT be interested in seeing this / clicking this video had it appeared in the trough of videos that shows up in YouTube. Don’t take that too hard – I skip almost everything that shows up there. I am saying this to help stimulate ideas about how to distribute this video or whatever – besides relying on Google/YouTube equations.

    Not sure what the “flavor” of this video is – is it something for the “news”? If so, the narrator’s voice is OK – BUT if not, perhaps get another narrator – has a “news” sound to it.

    Related to that ^^^ the length is perhaps too long for me, not sure,.. I watched the whole thing only because Prof. Cobb requested it. Perfect timing for lunch.

    I’d recommend cutting the first 40 seconds with the keyboard clicks. Perhaps replace it with nothing, if the information – which I suspect is something of a requirement for this video – can be put in there another way. I restate my general position about the first few seconds – this is where people decide whether to look for the X, the “Cancel”, “||” or not … very critical moment. You have to grab the attention. However, I think if you go right to the “main characters”, that might be OK…

    The title could be worked a bit more – perhaps more like a book title with a subtitle, e.g. “Wolves, Scotland, and Science – An Enviromental-Social Conundrum” (for instance)…

    I learned a number of things here. A number of things were mentioned that were very interesting background, for instance, the previous data from Yellowstone, … etc….

    … that was two cents worth (I’m in the US, not sure the exchange rate today), but you know me – I LOVE commenting on these videos, so perhaps I’ll swing back… by the way, being from the US I have to say – I know this is silly – the accents are GREAT, I love listening to everyone’s voices.

  6. I thought it was a good video. I especially liked the point about the hypocrisy of telling people in other countries they must save their lions and tigers.

    I live in Perthshire and see every day the denuded wilderness that passes for countryside. Land long-since stripped of woodland and kept that way by sheep and deer. Upland areas burnt every year so that hunters can kill grouse in the autumn. Raptors systematically exterminated.

    The land should be covered with trees (native species, not rows of conifers) and teeming with wildlife.

    Many years ago at Easter holiday time I used to help with the lambing at the farm my cousin worked at near Grandtully. Like all farming on marginal land, it is damned hard work and not at all well rewarded. So I do have sympathy for farmers who are worried about the impact of any scheme to introduce large predators or re-wild landscapes.

    On balance however, I think a healthy landscape can surely support more people than the impoverished version we have now.

      1. There are Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean and other places in England ,and according to Wikipedia there are some in Dumfries and Galloway .

  7. A very well made film! Top marks to Kirsty!

    Another consideration in reintroduction is that top predators (such as wolves, and perhaps lynx) often have a negative effect on mesopredators. In North America, for example, raccoons, skunks, etc. increase in number when larger predators are absent, which can have negative effects on species lower in the food chain. Reintroducing large predators can help suppress the mesopredators. In Scotland, I fear the mesopredator that might take it on the chin if wolf were reintroduced might be the wildcat. Before taking any steps that might threaten this indubitably native Scottish species, I would want to study possible impacts carefully. From a biodiversity point of view, while reintroducing wolves to Scotland would increase the species richness of once native species, genetically it would simply be a transplanted population of Norwegian (or other) wolves, whereas the Scottish wildcat embodies both species and genetic diversity.

    [I’ve made some suggestions on the film in the survey, but one that I didn’t include: identify who Ceballos et al. are at the end. Most or all viewers will not know who they are (or why their view is worth paying attention to). It’s not like it’s a quote from Rachel Carson, or Darwin, or other widely known figure!]

    1. Good point about mesopredators. Obviously I’d hate to see a drop in wildcat numbers, but a drop in mink numbers would be a bonus. For the benefit of those outside Scotland, the only reason we have wild mink is because some misguided animal rights activists decided to free them from the mink farms into the wild.

  8. Very well done video showing most all the pluses and minuses of the issue. It is a tough road to get farmers and particularly sheep farmer convinced of anything good when it comes to wolves. You hear in the film, to lose even one animal to wolves is not acceptable and his mind will not be changed. It is too bad really because without concurrence by the farmers, the reintroduction probably cannot be made.

    There are big difference between wolves and coyotes that some may not understand. The coyote is adaptable and has learned to live close to humans. The wolves cannot really do this and must have far more isolation. That is why Iowa and Minnesota have lots of coyotes but almost no wolves. Maybe far north Minnesota has a few.

    1. Yellowstone is not the only place wolves are being reintroduced in the US (as I’m sure you know). The reintroductions in eastern Oregon and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have fared fairly well so far despite all the expected and realized resistance of local farmers and other residents. We used to think cougars needed vast tracts of wilderness too, but since we stopped shooting them they’ve become quite adjusted to living near humans–witness all the vids of them in urban areas of Colorado, popular recreational spots in California, etc.

    1. One planned and permitted reintroduction (Knapdale in Argyll) of European beavers from IIRC Sweden ; one known un-permitted reintroduction, by person or persons unknown, of beavers from an unknown provenance (Tayside, near Killin) ; I believe one colony also known in southern England somewhere, which there is occasional debate over whether to exterminate or retroactively permit – it’s in the region trialling badger culling as a tool for being seen to do something about bovine TB.
      I haven’t heard of any other reintroductions – deliberate or zoo escapees. But it’s not impossible. The Tayside reintroduction probably happened several years before “the authorities” became aware of it.
      You know – there’s a question I ought to ask of a certain person who was in the right place at the right time and of the right mindset. If that person doesn’t know who did it, I bet he’s got a pretty short list of “usual suspects” to “round up”. “Round up” in the sense of buying a round of fine whiskey. Come to think of it, I’d probably chip in for the bottle too. I shall apply my ear to the political pavements of Auld Reekie.

      1. There have been beavers in this area for at least 15 years. As far as I know the original animals were found on the Isla, I’m not aware of any up in Killin. The last official SNH survey had the population at around 150 which was surely an underestimate even then. The report is here:

        Looking at the map there are several areas I know have beavers that are not shown. There are more beavers on the Ericht than indicated and they have spread well up the Lunan Burn beyond Loch of the Lowes. A friend at work showed me some photographs only last week of gnawed trees along a small stream south of Coupar Angus.

        A new report is due soon as survey work was done last year:

        If you follow the link from there to the NBN Atlas you can see all the latest sightings which shows how far they have spread since the 2012 survey.

        Paul Ramsay’s blog is worth a read:

        Here’s a picture taken June 2015 on the Ericht at Blairgowrie (not by me).

        1. A friend at work showed me some photographs only last week of gnawed trees along a small stream south of Coupar Angus.

          As far down towards the lowlands as that? If they’re that far spread, and spreading rapidly, then I’d suspect that the beaver is, so to speak, out of the bag.
          I suppose they could be eradicated again, but it would take a lot of effort, and with the government focussed on the ludicrous policy of badger culling to satisfy the farmers with tubercular cattle … they’re unlikely to welcome a political hot potato like exterminating cute furry animals.

        2. Actually, “at least 15 years” is a date that raises my suspicion level.
          I’m now going to have to research beers banded something like “beaver”, to put a pint of a question mark under a certain person’s nose.

  9. Speaking as an ignorant British urbanite who needs his 24/7 shopping/ entertainment…

    [1] The video was well edited, although I thought the mandolin behind the voice-over was too loud [once I noticed it]

    [2] I understood every word, but it needs captions for people less familiar with the Scots accent

    [3] The talking heads should have their names & occupations displayed more frequently

    [4] Fuller end credits

    [5] The sheep farmer brought up sea eagles twice – I would like to have seen some editorial in the video. Is he being reasonable or is it a minute problem? His negative attitude to the reintroduction of wilderness, in some areas & moving people out surprised me – implacable in his desire to maintain the current highly managed landscape so it benefits himself/heirs best [though probably his future is more assured if he embraces change & a diversification of his income sources].

    [6] His comment about keeping things as they’ve been for centuries is mythology – an entirely imaginary past. Reminded me of all those people who hark back to the simpler times of the 50s [whites on top, women in their place etc]. Put him in America & he’d be for Trump.

    [7] How common & entrenched are these people who wish to freeze time & point at what seem to be pseudo-facts to support their position?

    [8] I would have liked to hear from a grouse moor owner too.

    [9] Wolf attacks [non-rabid] on people are very rare aren’t they? In similarly populated wolf areas in Europe have people been attacked?

    A very good video Kirsty. It could have been an hour long & I’d have watched it.

    1. [5] The sheep farmer brought up sea eagles twice – I would like to have seen some editorial in the video. Is he being reasonable or is it a minute problem?

      I’ve certainly heard them reported, but not as bleakly painted as this guy was painting it.

      implacable in his desire to maintain the current highly managed landscape so it benefits himself/heirs best

      Trying to get *any* of the next generation to stay on in the regions has been an extremely uphill struggle for generations. It’s a part of the reason that migrant workers from Eastern Europe have been so welcome for decades – and the next 11.7 months. Some of them even stayed and had children, but few. So … the school closes and the few remaining children go to Inverness for boarding school during the week. And when they leave school, they almost invariably stay on in the metropolitan life. Passing on a croft to heirs within the family is considerably less common these days than breaking the tenancy on death and the landowner selling on as a retirement or holiday home. But I can understand why a student project wouldn’t want to open that particular industrial-size can of worms.

      [6] His comment about keeping things as they’ve been for centuries is mythology

      IIRC, that guy was fingerprinted as in Wester Ross. The white plague (sheep) started spreading there just about 2 centuries ago. That he’s into sheep almost certainly means most of his herds are on tenancy ground, not land he owns. His home and croft may be secured (1880-odd Crofting Act), but tenancy rights are regular commercial contracts and can be terminated at whatever the renegotiation period is. When the Chernobyl cloud came over, the wave of bankruptcies lasted for 2-5 years, which suggests mean contract length. (Caesium fallout was enough to put the lamb Bq/kg above the salable limit, so no sales ; bankruptcy ; I knew people who worked on trying to develop techniques for flushing Cs preferentially from adsorption onto soil clay minerals – didn’t work faster than natural flushing t the levels that could have been supported by lamb sale prices.)

      [8] I would have liked to hear from a grouse moor owner too.

      They’re keeping a very low profile at the moment. Poisoning raptors is known to be illegal, and the countries 4 (I think, give or take) Wildlife Crimes Officers are now organised as a nationwide squad, not one officer in a region. Which makes them far less susceptible to local pressure. Getting an interview with a grouse moor owner (more likely gamie, or manager) would probably have required doorstepping and would have run a real risk of a shotgun butt in the teeth. We had run-ins with the fuckers when I was a student, and they’re not nice people – who’re under increasing stress at the moment. IIRC, a senior gamie is currently in jail for raptor poisoning. Not recommended for a student project.

      [9] Wolf attacks [non-rabid] on people are very rare aren’t they? In similarly populated wolf areas in Europe have people been attacked?

      50 years, 5 attacks IIRC. I think that some of those were bodies found chewed up, who had possibly died of hypothermia/ trauma/ whatever and been scavenged post mortem. Not the biggest hazard out there.
      The economics of the Highlands are pretty dire, and getting worse. Some years ago I was considering getting into scallop farming out in Wester Ross with a diving (and offshore friend), which would have probably worked if I wanted to work a 10 hour diving day when not on the rigs. The premium market is for getting fresh stuff onto Parisian and Mediterranean restaurant shelves next day. That’s going to be gone post Brexit as stuff sits in customs sheds. Re-wilding isn’t going to make that any better.

        1. These questions got chewed over a lot in winter nights in the bothy, with the children of several crofters, forestry students, geologists, botanists, ecologists, people planing to set up hotels or hostels … In between sex, drugs, whiskey and football.

    2. An excellent video, and I largely agree with your and Aidan’s comments. My only criticism as I watched it was the lack of representation of sporting estate landowners, who own the majority of the Highlands, and therefore have a big say in what happens there. I think perhaps Aidan exaggerates the danger of trying to obtain such an interview, particularly if arranged through the landowners’ association (Scottish Land and Estates?). I mention this for the sake of balance, not for any support I may or may not feel for such landowners.

  10. I’m sold. Let’s hunt automobiles to extinction. 25,000+ deaths in Europe each year seems a bit worse than wolves.

  11. Excellent video, quite balanced.
    I missed a discussion of the related ideas of Alan Savoury, about the benefits of keeping large herbivores in tight groups in extensive (as opposed to intensive) animal husbandry. Herders and herder animals ‘replacing’ wild predators as it were, in his models.
    It is very important that the losses should be limited to an absolute minimum, really only that odd stray lamb, so that it is not going to backfire.

  12. A great video – well presented and beautifully shot! I hope the wolves leave the wild cats alone because Touch not the cat bot a glove!

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