Are we weeing in the wind?

I had hoped to bring you something slightly more sanguine following my last emotionally charged post – thank you to all who contributed by the way. It is not to be however, and although this is more of a reflection than a rant (it is after all Friday afternoon), it is nevertheless delivered with a slightly heavy heart.

Movie buffs will be pleased to note that Liam Neeson is back on our screen in The Grey, an action thriller that depicts a plane crash from which the survivors find themselves in an Alaskan wilderness. You can feel it coming can’t you? I heard it on Radio 2 and I knew immediately what was coming. The words ‘wilderness’, ‘Alaska’ and ‘thriller’ – with a shot of Hollywood thrown in to spice up the cocktail – mean only one thing: Wolves. Even in this informed age of animal ecology and behaviour; even at a time of heightened sensitivity to media misrepresentation, there’s no way that truth should get in the way of sensationalism. They¬† just can’t resist it. I’m sure you can guess the story. It’s basically about a group of men being hunted by a pack of hungry wolves (as they do). It’s not really about predator and prey, it’s about good versus evil. It’s also biologically inaccurate and totally misleading.

Ilike Liam Neeson and OK, perhaps I’m over-reacting a tad, perhaps you could argue that it’s only a story, fiction, a piece of light-hearted entertainment and to a degree, I would buy that. But if you speak with the many scientists, researchers and biologists who have spent their lives – some of whom have lost their lives – educating the public about this much-maligned creature, I’m not sure they’d agree. And does this film really do the wolf’s reputation harm? Well I don’t know that for sure but 138,000 Facebook followers for a movie that has only been released a few days, doesn’t bode well for global wolf education. Hate wolves if you want to but at least hate them based on fact not fiction.

For context, the Facebook page campaigning to stop aerial wolf hunting in Alaska has 9,000 followers and I’m sure a good proportion of those are anti- Palin rather than pro-wolf. As a conservationist you can wee as hard and as long as you like but just now, there’s a strong breeze coming the other way.

ps. Both of these wolves were photographed in controlled conditions – before I get accused of misrepresentation!


An engine without oil?

I’ve recently read two very interesting pieces – the first specifically about wolves; the second, a book about the impact of predators on global ecosystems.

A friend of mine sent me a very well pitched report he’d written following a visit to Norway to follow a hugely controversial wolf hunt. In it he describes both extreme hatred and fear for this most symbolic of animals, amidst a rural community that whilst in the minority in terms of national feelings towards wolves, are nevertheless vocal and committed. My friend is himself an experienced game manager so knows about Scottish wildlife politics, but even he says: “I have never experienced such an atmosphere. For many there, an evil had been cleansed from the valley.” This following the shooting of a large male wolf.

Another friend sent me a book (which I would heartily recommend) called Where the wild things were by William Stolzenburg. In it Stolzenburg documents scientific research not into the impact of large carnivores as such, but the ecological chaos found in their absence. Stolzenburg, an American wildlife journalist, offers a convincing science-based argument that alpha predators are the primary regulators of the world’s ecosystems and that their removal, far from being a good thing for unburdened prey, provides the building blocks for long-term ecological decline. Space doesn’t allow for examples – buy the book and listen to the penny dropping. It’s compelling stuff.

I’m often asked about my feelings towards wolves and whether I think they should be returned to Scotland. It’s far from a black and white issue, but it really comes down to whether you answer the question as a rural economist, or as an ecologist. The wolf hunt in Norway underlines a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between prioritising traditional rural practice, and a new and increasingly popular paradigm based on ecosystem health. Like my friend who followed the Norwegian hunt, it’s tough when you can see both sides, and I can. The only caveat to me having the fence well and truly wedged in my nether regions with one foot either side of it, is that if I look 100 years hence, I sometimes wonder whether we will ultimately pay the price of an ecological engine running without oil.