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Almost 250 years after the last native wolf was killed, is Ireland ready for the debate about bringing them back?

In the latest episode of the Ireland 2029 podcast, we examine the case for reintroducing the wolf.

IRELAND HAS REINTRODUCED predators before: a total of 100 white-tailed eagles were released in Killarney National Park from the mid-2000s, while Donegal saw more than 60 golden eagles released between 2001 and 2012. 

The projects to reintroduce the two eagle species have been taking place amid a wider rewilding project across Europe that has also seen beavers, bison and over 30 other species make successful comebacks across the continent since 1960. 

Wolves, too, are making a recovery in this part of the world. Populations have been increasing in France and Germany. One even made its way to the Netherlands a few years ago

At one time, the sound of a wolf’s howl was common in Ireland too – but the animal was hunted to extinction in the late 1700s.

Now, some environmentalists here are hoping to see the species return to the island. Backers of the idea say the presence of an apex predator can have a massively beneficial trickle-down effect on an ecosystem – as documented in Yellowstone in the US, where wolves were brought back in the mid-1990s. 

Wolf-watching, it’s argued, could also provide an economic boost for isolated areas of the island. 

shutterstock_1091142866 Source: Shutterstock/SueTot

But while the debate about bringing wolves back to Ireland – whether we could, and (more to the point) whether we should – has been ongoing in wildlife circles for years, it’s safe to say it’s not an issue that’s gained much traction in wider society.

Google ‘wolves reintroduction Ireland’, for instance, and the first page of results throws up – amongst other items - a well-executed April Fool’s article on bringing wolves back to the Wicklow Mountains. 

It only goes to show, wildlife campaigners hoping to kick-start a serious mainstream debate on the issue have a big job on their hands even just to get people stop and listen, instead of instinctually dismissing the notion as whimsical or abstract.

So if the debate were to be played out, what are the benefits of reintroducing wolves in Ireland? Is it practically possible? Where would the wolves come from? And if a pilot project went ahead, with government backing, where would the first wolves live?

The latest episode of our Ireland 2029 podcast examines the debate in detail.

Why bring them back? 

A sea-change in how we view nature would be needed for the benefits of reintroducing an apex predator like the wolf to become apparent to communities in Ireland, Padraic Fogarty, the campaigns officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, reckons. 

“The issues we’re facing here are not necessarily ecological or scientific, they’re more about our own perceptions and our own attitudes,” Fogarty said. 

“I think, more than anything, the wolf forces us to look nature right between the eyes. I mean, most of human history is about subduing nature and controlling nature. And we’ve become so good at that, that we’re actually destroying the entire planet.

So getting around the issue of wolves is about recognising our place in nature and the natural systems and learning to live with the things around us.

As Fogarty concedes, we can’t get through a single Irish summer without people calling for seagulls to be shot for stealing chips and chicken fillet rolls – so people will need a lot of convincing before they’re ready to welcome the wolf back with open arms. 

Asked to spell out the benefits of wolf reintroduction for the uninitiated, Fogarty said it had been proven that top predators can help restore a sense of balance to an ecosystem – keeping deer and other prey animals in check.  

“Predators play a really vital role,” he said. Deer populations, if left to roam freely in their habitats, “will eat everything and destroy everything”. 

The predators kind of sit on top of that, and they keep check of the deer. And that allows the whole ecosystem to flourish.

The phenomenon Fogarty is alluding to, known as ‘trophic cascade’, may ring a bell: in 2014 a video outlining the theory titled ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’, filmed at Yellowstone and narrated by British writer George Monbiot, went viral.  

Said Fogarty: “[Predators] are not the only important thing, but they are the most important thing probably in an ecosystem. So if we want to restore ecosystems in Ireland, and if we’re serious about that, we have to be talking about big predators like wolves.”

Source: Sustainable Human/YouTube

A boost to tourism?  

Putting the pure ecological argument aside for a second, there’s also the potential economic boost from wildlife tourism to be considered. 

In Ireland, one study by Clare County Council showed that over 10,000 visitors came to view a pair of nesting white-tailed eagles in 2015.   

You can take it that many multiples of that number would be drawn to the country to view a wolf population in its natural environment. 

In Yellowstone National Park in the US, where the grey wolf population has grown to around 100 over the past quarter century, wolf-watching alone is estimated to generate €35 million a year for the local economy

According to Rick Lamplugh, a wildlife writer and advocate who lives in Gardiner, Montana, at the north gate of the park, many towns and communities bordering its sprawling 8,991 square kilometre wilderness now depend on the income generated by tourists and travellers hoping to catch a glimpse of Yellowstone’s wolves and bears. 

The inevitable conflict 

Obviously, conflict between predators and humans is the main focus of debate wherever major reintroduction schemes are executed or even contemplated.

The comeback of the brown bear in the Alps has caused controversy and consternation in Italy, Austria and Switzerland. Poisoning, meanwhile, has hampered the success of the eagle reintroduction projects here at home. 

Around Yellowstone there was sustained opposition to the plan to bring back wolves as the idea began to gain momentum in the 1980s. When the first 31 animals were transported to the park from Canada in 1995-96, armed guards had to be placed on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to ensure the safety of the animals.

As Lamplugh explained: “In Yellowstone the wolves were penned for 10 weeks before they were released, and while they were penned, they were fed roadkill. But the National Park Service didn’t talk much about this, because they were afraid that someone would lace the roadkill with poison. That gives you an idea of what the temperament was.

After the reintroduction, when the wolves were in the park and coming out of the park, some folks in northwest Wyoming tried to kill wolves by lacing meat with powerful poisons, and there were websites that sprouted up that gave viewers information on how to kill wolves. And within 10 years at least 30 wolves have been poached in the Yellowstone area.

Elk Chases Wolf in Yellowstone National Park Wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. Their population has grown and stabilised in the intervening decades. Source: Keith R. Crowley/PA

A danger to people and livestock? 

If the debate about reintroducing wolves was to gain traction here, opponents would no doubt focus on the inherent dangers. Given the relative lack of expansive wilderness in Ireland, it wouldn’t be long before wolves attempted to make their way toward more densely populated areas. 

It’s a given that they would kill and eat livestock – and some proponents of reintroduction have proposed that farmers be compensated for any animals taken, in line with schemes elsewhere.

Wolves also have a history of attacks on humans, going right up to the present day – but studies have shown they are relatively rare, and the biggest threat is from rabid animals. 

Leaving aside the scientifically supported statistics however, wolves have been getting a bad press for millennia, from fairytale and folklore right up to recent depictions in popular culture like the 2011 Liam Neeson-flees-from-revenge-seeking-wolves epic The Grey.

Would communities be willing to put aside those entrenched, instinctual fears and welcome the species back to their native Irish habitats?

Campaigners backing reintroduction concede that a large-scale national debate will need to take place before people are ready consider reintroduction in their area. 

“The first thing we have to do is have a general education programme in Ireland about the true state of the natural environment – the state of nature, and why that matters,” said Fogarty, of the Irish Wildlife Trust. 

The second thing is to do with our ethics – you know, how do we ethically respond to problems with nature? Are we going to just get a rifle every time there’s a nuisance? Or are we going to say no, actually, nature has a right to exist and we have a duty to be considered in our responses.
We’re not going to eliminate conflicts, there’s always going to be conflicts between people and the natural world. But it’s how we respond to those conflicts that’s going to be really important.

How they died out in Ireland 

The question also needs to be considered – would reintroducing the wolf to the Irish landscape be fair to the animals themselves?

After all, humans were the number one threat to the wolf in the wild when they were last present on the island. 

Customs records show that up to 300 wolf pelts a year were exported from Ireland to the port of Bristol throughout the 1500s, but according to research by UCC geographer Dr Kieran Hickey, the island of Ireland still had a sustainable population of up to 1,000 wolves right up to the 1660s. 

Wolf numbers increased again in the wake of the Cromwellian wars and wolf-hunters were appointed at various locations. Before long, bounties of £5 and £6 were placed on the animals’ heads – and a rapid, final decline soon followed.

Despite having held on in Ireland for hundreds of years after becoming extinct in England and Wales, the last native Irish wolf was hunted down and killed in the late 1700s – most likely at Mount Leinster on the Carlow-Wexford border. 

shutterstock_154772870 Source: Shutterstock/Nagel Photography

Now, almost 250 years on from the death of the last native Irish wolf, if the latest official word on the matter tells us anything, it’s that there’s little appetite among politicians to consider their reintroduction – or even to commission a study examining the issue. 

The minister responsible for national parks, Josepha Madigan, said in answer to a Dáil question from Wexford TD (and now MEP) Mick Wallace before the Oireachtas summer break that any feasibility study would fall at the first hurdle.

According to the Fine Gael minister: “The wolf became extinct in Ireland towards the end of the 18th century. Its demise was brought about by a number of factors including deforestation, the expansion of agriculture, and persecution. There is limited evidence that those causes of its previous extinction have been removed.”

Madigan said the current challenges faced by the native pine marten “a relatively small and unthreatening predator compared to a wolf, as well as the ongoing poisoning and shooting of reintroduced birds of prey, indicate that the threat of persecution, particularly for a large predator, remains a concern”.

Lest anyone be left in doubt over the government’s current policy on the matter, the minister also included this helpful line in her response to Wallace: 

My Department has no plans to reintroduce wolves to Ireland.


Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

Should Ireland reintroduce wolves?

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Daragh Brophy

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