…whether we like it or not.
These are the words of Frans Vera, a highly respected Dutch ecologist, and of course he is right. For anyone with any knowledge of wolf ecology, it should come as no surprise that these entrepreneurial predators have recently found their way into both Belgium and The Netherlands – two highly urbanised countries which on the face of it, seem completely unsuitable for wolves.
So what do these wolf wanderings mean for under-the-table discussions on their return to Britain? Well perhaps not much in the short term – wolves will never reach these shores unaided. But politically, each time a wolf is sighted in a new European country, the legislative pressure is cranked up a notch. Why should France, Italy and Spain – and now Holland and Belgium – put up with wolves and not us? Is it fair that we subscribe to EU legislation on the restoration of native species but we’re conspicuous by not conforming to it? No sensible EU politician with an eye on re-election would ever suggest wolves are eliminated from mainland Europe, so what makes the UK different?
There are myriad answers to that question but our island status is perhaps the most significant. Wolves from eastern Europe have been expanding their range for a couple of decades now, so it’s inevitable that they will find new niches. From Poland to Germany, from Germany to Belgium – administrative boundaries are of no concern to a pioneering wolf looking for somewhere to raise a new generation. But don’t panic, the UK is ‘protected’ thanks to 22 miles of open sea. For wolves to come here – and lets assume the political will for a moment – they’d need to be caught, crated, transported and released. Aside from the cost and the socio-political furore, there is another factor which will ultimately determine whether wild wolves are ever seen back in Britain: the media. Wolves that slip across an unseen border can avoid drawing attention to themselves, but that’s simply not possible here.
For wolf advocates the media could be their greatest ally; it’s a powerful platform for education, but considering their historic treatment of large predator stories, don’t count your chickens – or should that be sheep? If I was a hungry young journalist I can think of only one story that would spit on foxes sneaking into suburban houses, sea eagles having the potential to snatch babies, or even polar bears killing undeserving expedition students: Wolves coming back to Britain. It’s a journalistic wet dream and could pitch neighbour against neighbour for months.
My guess is that 20 years from now, wolves will be an accepted part of the landscape across most of Western Europe, but unless there’s a fundamental shift in the definition of responsible media, the English Channel will be one step too far for Canis lupus.