Four hours ago I was stood barely upright on Stac Pollaidh, one of Scotland’s most characterful mountains. Such was the ferocity of the wind at my back, I almost needed to crawl into the lee of the hill to gain some respite and a chance to drink in the spectacular views over Inverpolly Forest. Of course ‘forest’ is an ironic and misleading term as there is barely a tree to be seen for miles and miles…and miles.
Mention the ‘R’ word in some circles and hackles rise. Visions of out-of-control wolves on a killing spree spring to mind and primeval fears mixed with deep-seated cultural resentment of change, bubble to the surface. Politics too, is inextricably linked to the potential, or otherwise, for rewilding. Continue reading “Rewilding: Is it time?”
What is a holiday? A chance to do what you like doing? Yes, exactly. And I like taking photos which means I take my camera on holiday. No ifs, no buts and no amount of protestation from my good wife.
And so it was I agreed to a holiday in Yellowstone. I say “agreed”, it’s hardly a hardship to spend time in one of the most exciting places on earth. If you’ve never been to this part of the world, it is above all else, exciting. The scenery is gobsmacking, the wildlife abundant but that’s not the attraction for me: Yellowstone is damned exciting. It’s exciting because it’s effectively a volcano spewing and spluttering its intentions ceaselessly; it’s exciting because it was America’s first National Park signalling a new era in land custodianship; it’s exciting because it now attracts 3 million visitors a year; it’s exciting because with the return of wolves in 1995, it is claimed to be one of the last true wilderness areas of the northern Hemisphere. Now, we could debate the definition of ‘wilderness’ all day but anywhere that creeps close to it (especially a place with wild wolves) that also accommodates 3 million people, is VERY exciting to me.
Ian taking some time out…with a friend.
Amanda my wife, and our close friends Eileen and Ian, had never been to Yellowstone whereas I had the knowledge built up over many visits with tour groups. This inevitably resulted in me becoming the (unpaid) tour guide, a role that was remunerated only through the occasional opportunity to take pictures – I did less than 1gb in two weeks so please don’t give me a hard time!
Initially based in Mammoth, we took in the famous Lamar Valley where one early start rewarded us with roadside wolf howling, the like of which I’d never experienced. Thick forest prevented a view but we knew…we felt…those wolves were close. From West Yellowstone we saw grizzly and cubs, black bear up close (a bit too close for Eileen), beaver and river otters. One morning we witnessed a young wolf swimming the Yellowstone River and bumped into the same animal close to the road the following day. Moving south we immersed ourselves in the rustic delights of Old Faithful Inn for two nights before leaving Yellowstone for Grand Teton where moose were abundant but the fall colour was regrettably past its best.
These River Otters can really shift – I just managed to grab this shot as a family swam upstream one evening at sunset.
It’s been several years since my last visit to Yellowstone and there was a noticeable change in the profile of visitors with many more nationalities represented – surely a sign of emerging economic wealth and perhaps in tandem with an increasingly urbanised lifestyle, a latent yearning to flirt with nature? I’m not sure, but it seems that the wilderness is no longer the preserve of wealthy Westerners and although I have concerns about the impact of ever-growing visitor numbers, that is surely no bad thing?
Our final day was spent on horseback high above Jackson Hole and in full view of the National Elk Refuge, the controversial wintering grounds for beleaguered elk and not a million miles different from the practice of feeding red deer in Scotland – like I say, for anyone with an interest in the human-wildlife dynamic, this is an exciting place.
If you scratch beneath the surface of the Yellowstone story – and it’s one helluva of a story – it will draw you in and sink its metaphorical teeth into your heart and mind. Over the years, this place has taught me more about wildness and how different people perceive and relate to that wildness, than anywhere else I’ve been.
The food is crap if you’re vegetarian; the French Vanilla cappuccinos are delicious but too sweet and the monster-sized trucks that pass as family cars get right up my nose (as do photographers that never reduce their tripods below head height) but if you can put up with these minor encumbrances, Yellowstone (and Grand Teton) is a delight.
Amanda after an early start and a lack of caffeine.
Against the context of the emerging ecological ethos of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, you might be interested in these web sites.
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!
…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.
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.