Let me tell you something odd. I used to work in a museum and one lazy day I was casually chatting to three or four school kids about extinct Irish animals. I was confronted with a strange reaction. It started with mild cynicism and very shortly became derisive hooting laughter.
This reaction, I was to discover, was due to the fact that the young men in question simply could not accept that wolves had ever lived in Ireland. I was, as far as they were concerned, a barefaced liar.
I went home slightly irritated about this and I later spoke to one of my nephews about this subject, and again I was greeted with a dramatic raised eyebrow and a dismissive remark, the content of which mostly eluded me but I did hear the words “flying pig”. My attempts to convince him of the authenticity of Irish Wolves were fruitless.
‘Garbage’, he told me; that was like trying to tell him that there were bears in Ireland. As a matter of fact, I retorted, there were bears in Ireland, they’re just dead now. The next word he used shouldn’t be repeated here but it’s enough to say that it nicely summarised his thoughts on the subject. His response was plural and spherical.
The simple fact of the matter is that there were wolves in this country. A lot of them. An awful lot of them. So many in fact that, that they became one of the central threats to life and security in Late medieval Ireland. If you doubt my assertions as to their existence then go to the Natural History Museum in Dublin where you can see wolf remains on display. You can even find a reference to someone’s moaning being likened to the howling of Irish Wolves in one of Shakespeare’s plays.
The problem arose due to the essential nature of what a wolf is; a predator. It was doing what came naturally. This meant hunting and killing cattle and sheep, which (during the medieval period) brought them into conflict with an even more ruthless, cunning and effective predator than themselves.
This was of course mankind. This was a conflict that would eventually lead to the wolf’s total extermination. Many people living in the current age would not have a problem with this; in fact they would be particularly uncomfortable with the idea of wolves running wild in modern-day Ireland. I imagine that anyone who owns livestock and who has ever seen them attacked by dogs will readily nod their head in agreement.
Nonetheless, the wolf has had a hard time of it. Their image is not good. Wolves are thought of as ruthless, bloodthirsty and vicious. Their name is synonymous with treachery, avarice and duplicity. In actual fact the real wolf, when looked at in detail, turns out to be a rather admirable animal, who carries a certain nobility and charm.
Wolves are beautiful, graceful and obviously intelligent. Also their personal habits are charming. They are monogamous and stick to one partner (more than can be said for your average dog?) and they trenchantly protect their families. I would go as far as to say that they are the most beautiful animals on earth.
So what?s the problem? Why did they suffer such a terrible fate in Ireland? What crime did they commit to earn the distaste and animosity of the Irish people? And why at this particular time?
There are a multitude of factors, but really the answer is very simple. In fact it can be reduced down to one word; livestock. Wolves, as already stated are predators. Not predators of humans, but other animals.
There is actually little or no evidence, world-wide, for wolves attacking humans and in the isolated number of cases where they have, later examination of the case has shown that the animal was usually either rabid or was having its cubs taken away from it.
Wolves, in order to survive need to hunt and to feed. When man first arrived in Ireland this would not have presented too much of a problem as there were plenty of wild animals on which their diet was based.
However, as deforestation and farming increased, a new set of problems emerged. There was now a new and seemingly limitless supply of food. This new food was slower, easier to kill and there was a lot more of it. The result was inevitable: outright war between man and wolf.
As far back as the late 1500’s we have references to organised wolf hunting. Later, throughout the 1600’s, as English forces made their presence felt in Ireland wolves were to suffer terribly. Massive projects were set underway to clear away huge sections of Oak Forest. This was the wolf’s natural habitat and now that it was being destroyed at a rapid scale they were forced closer and closer to mankind, resulting in even more livestock being destroyed.
The vicious circle was becoming complete. The wolves were more exposed and thus more vulnerable. The government of King James I set out guidelines for wolf extermination and how much of a reward would be given for each one killed. The plan was never actually used but it paved the way for the actions of a certain Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell is more infamous for his actions regarding people in Ireland, yet he was personally responsible for the extermination of what must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of wolves. In 1652 he gave orders that wolves were not to be exported from the country and later the same year, wolf hunts were organised. The next year a scale of rewards was introduced for the different type of wolves caught; more for a mother, less for a cub and so on.
The extermination took some time and it is not exactly clear when it was completed. Arguments have ranged for centuries now, as to when the ?last wolf? was killed and where. Nearly every county in Ireland, at some time or another, has claimed to be the one where the ?last wolf? was killed. However, it is reasonably safe to say that the last one died before the end of the 18th Century.
What is striking, when the extermination of the Irish wolf is studied, is the alarming parallel with what is happening in modern Ireland relating to another native species, which is seen as a threat to livestock. This is of course the badger, who has been systematically hunted and exterminated over the last eight years.
Some people estimate that up to 20,000 have been slaughtered. This has been done under a state-sponsored scheme, despite the fact that the most recent scientific evidence suggests that the badgers are not the ones who are primarily responsible for the spread of Tuberculosis (TB) in livestock.
It would appear that after five to six centuries the methods have changed, the weapons have changed and even the animal has changed, but attitudes to native Irish wildlife have not?
Find out more:
A PBS website. Very good stuff.
The International Wolf Centre. A great site from a great organisation.
The National Wildlife Federation Website, USA. A interesting page which gives details on a project to re-introduce Grey wolves to parts of the USA.
The Wolf : The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, L. David Mech, Paperback, 384 pages
The Last Wolf of Ireland, Fiona Malterre, Hardback, 127 pages
Grey Wolf Voicethread
The Last Wolf by Mary TallMountain
Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (Flickr Slideshow)