Why we should fill Britain with wolves

Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf? A European Grey Wolf with its cubs
Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf? A European Grey Wolf with its cubs - N Novack/Bridgeman

Terrific, life-lit moments come howling out of Hunt for the Shadow Wolf, Derek Gow’s history of what happened to the wolves of Britain. A farmer and rewilder who significantly contributed to the reintroduction to Britain of beavers, water voles and white storks, Gow traces the pawprints wolves left on our language, culture and landscape. Being a head-first sort of conservationist, he takes us as close to wolves as it’s possible to get, having worked with them in zoological collections: “I know that when you bury your face deep in their tawny or steel-blue fur they smell of bone marrow, and that when playful juveniles roll over and you get your lips in close enough to blow raspberries on their quivering pink tummies, they quite readily wee themselves with joy.”

The reality of wolves – their shyness, curiosity, affection, resilience and beauty – makes a bright path through Gow’s tale, which is often a sad and violent history of extermination. Frightened of wolves and murderously protective of our livestock, the peoples of Britain were remorseless in their eradication. Gow’s story starts well before the Normans and comes up to the present day: wolves are speared, poisoned, trapped, hunted with dogs, tricked into pits and tortured. A particularly unappealing method currently used in north America involves fitting a wolf with a radio collar, tracking it to its pack and then shooting them all. In one famous incident, a woman bashes in a wolf’s skull with a skillet.

Yet, as Gow shows, we created a threatening and rapacious “shadow wolf”, brutally caricaturing and persecuting the real creature. He points out that dogs attack hundreds of people and thousands of sheep across Europe every year – man’s best friends slew 13,000 sheep in the Netherlands in 2018 – while wolves harmed no humans and, in the same year, just 138 sheep in Holland.

Just like us: wolf-headed people depicted in The Book of Wonders, a 15th-century French manuscript
Just like us: wolf-headed people depicted in The Book of Wonders, a 15th-century French manuscript - Bridgeman

For all the sincerity and cogency of his argument that we have ruthlessly misunderstood wolves, and that place, people and planet all benefit from a sympathetic reassessment of them, and their reintroduction, Gow is never dull or worthy. Reading this book is like being in the company of a rambunctious descendant of Gerald Durrell, whose writings inspired Gow when he was young. Working in a Kent zoo with wolves rescued from a Romanian fur farm, Gow attempts to separate two cubs from their mother. If you can get hold of the chocolatey young before their eyes open you can tame them, he explains. Despite wielding a shield and a broom, Gow is expertly ambushed by two female wolves who snap the head off the broom and “strip it ragingly bare of bristles with great bites”. Beasts and man emerge with equal credit from the scrap; the cubs, Nadia and Mishka, become his friends.

The actual savagery in this story snarls in the shadows of the human imagination. The Saxon name for January was “Wulf monat”, possibly “a time when the starving packs were at their most dangerous”, he concedes, “but it may have been the fear of diminishing winter provisions which really bit deep.” Throughout, he aims to overpower the manhunter of folktale with fact: “A person in wolf country has a greater chance of being killed by a dog, lightning, bee sting or a car collision with a deer than being injured by a wolf,” states the International Wolf Centre in Minnesota. Wolf-watching in Yellowstone National Park generates $35 million dollars a year. The empty quarters of the Scottish Highlands could support dozens of packs. But you sense that despite the immense potential value of the creatures, Gow suspects that our fear of the shadow wolf is ingrained.

Nevertheless, in place names, medieval sculpture, literature, weapons, art and artefacts, Hunt for the Shadow Wolf shows how painstakingly we commemorated our exterminated wolves. There is respect, even love, in the ways we regard them. And Gow’s book’s final paragraph, in which he describes a now-aged Nadia and her kind, “in pattern and in spirit... forever impressed in the landscape of Britain” offers a truly beautiful, and truly moving, conclusion.


Horatio Clare’s books include Heavy Light: A Journey Through Madness, Mania and Healing and The Light in the Dark : A Winter Journal. Hunt for the Shadow Wolf: The Lost History of Wolves in Britain and the Myths and Stories that Surround Them is published by Chelsea Green at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books