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Sliding down into my sleeping bag, I reach for the head torch and press it off. Silence follows darkness, my eyelids lower and then it comes… A sound that slows your heart beat, forces you to control your breathing and strain to pay attention; heightens your senses. A sound both beautiful and demanding. The howl of a wild wolf.
I lie still, not afraid at all but excited and in awe that not far from my tent stands a creature that seems to call back through the history of wild places and holds its place in the here and now.
The “here” is North Eastern Mongolia, about 40km from the Russian border in a remote valley sewn through by a meandering river and sided by deep forest and the “now” July 2012 sometime before midnight on a damp, chilly, Northern summer evening. I am halfway through leading a youth expedition through an area of these grasslands that sweep up to the foothills of Northern Mongolia, a wild country hosting beautiful and strong people living completely in harmony with their landscape and nature. We are moving through this landscape on horseback, carrying us and our luggage, led by wranglers, the oldest seem ageless and the youngest, 10. We were briefed in many issues which may affect us negatively like flies, heat, river crossings, lightning storms, Russian border control soldiers and bandits – not interestingly wolves. Because they are not a negative issue to us – to the horses yes and to the Buryat people a respected but constant threat to their precious companions. It is widely known of the relationship between the Mongolians and the horse but there is a third party involved in this passionate relationship. A trio of dependency and respect.
The immense herds of wild horses that move across this borderless landscape with grass lands like oceans and forests like infinite green blankets, form groups of hundreds of mares and foals strongly led by a stallion who is in constant battle with challenging males and keeps his group moving to avoid the gaze of the wolf. This top predator will follow the herds and keep a health check on them, identifying the weak, the old, the injured and the wrong decision maker – the female who foolishly leaves the herd enticed by the calls of a rogue male and then is alone and vulnerable. Not alone for long though and her weaker genes are not passed on. So the herds are kept healthy, their numbers in balance with the grazing available and the wolf pack reaches optimum size based on the numbers of prey killed; large enough to form a pack to hunt and defend against rival packs but small enough for family members to form bonds and raise pups, use suitable dens and move as a compact group through their vast home.
Wolves and horses in that country are interlinked and interdependent on each other and until not three generations ago, so it was with the wolf and the deer in Scotland.
Allow yourself to imagine a remote mountain glen on an autumn evening approaching dusk, natural deciduous woodland flanks the sides up to a natural treeline, the higher slopes scree covered and the peaks capped in jagged rock. The red deer graze carefully through the woodlands, the stags a full 130kg, a third heavier than present day beasts, his coat russet and shining. The hinds pick among the lush grasses and heaths, nip at the lower branches of Oak, Rowan, Ash and Aspen all flourishing in a temperate and naturally managed landscape. This seasons’ calves, five or six months now, weaned and learning the ways of the herd, how to win mates, choose suitable grazing spots and how to evade the wolf, a constant and relentless presence.
And then they appear, on the perimeters, just outside the area, moving in pairs, or sometimes threes, slowly loping keeping to the shadow areas, breaking up their silhouettes and dodging the skylines, a pack of eight strong females. The lead female a graceful animal of tan and silver markings, her muzzle lighter and her eyes outline with black like Kohl. Her feet fall softly but carefully, she stops and looks to the others, no sound. Two move ahead, they have spotted a yearling who has moved out of the communal grazing area enticed by Alder still in green before the Autumn coolness turns its leaves to brown. The leading lady quickens her pace, turns her head to those following behind, they pick up the signal and the chase is on.
It is over in minutes, the pack move in and the young hind is taken down, the rest of the herd scattered with the activity.
A scene repeated all over the Highlands perhaps, in the vast natural pine forests of Caledonian and Scots Pine in Perthshire, the shady indigenous woodlands of Argyll and the open moorlands of heather and bog myrtle of Rannoch. The islands too, wolves roaming Trotternish and Sron Ulladale – what a thought! But it is not all a fantasy, for me and many others, an incredible thought that this was reality, the wolves were here. It is lamentable they are not now. Lamentable for us, for the deer and for the landscape and of course for the species itself.
For the deer: they have lost their natural health care, their GP if you will, the means that kept them strong, healthy, quick and in balance with their grazing land.
For the landscape: by keeping deer numbers in check allowed trees to flourish, plants, grasses, heaths and flowers to thrive, the glens would look very different to today’s barely ankle deep vegetation of tough woody heather and nutrition poor grasses. A wide variety of vegetation provided not only feeding but habitat for huge numbers of birds, animals and insects, a truly flourishing ecosytem.
And for us: we have lost these magnificent animals in our wild lands and even the“knowing” they are there is lost.
In his book “The Last Wolf” Jim Crumley describes the wolf as the painter of mountains, how true. People moving through and enjoying our present day landscape are often ignorant of the fact it is a changed landscape, changed by man in his inhuman act of the Clearances and the flooding of glens and moors by white locusts and by the removal of the predators, the wolves, lynx and bear who played vital parts in managing the grazers and allowed the environment to exist as a true ecosystem, in harmony.
By removing an element in this naturally set system upsets the balance, the system breaks down, the chain is broken. And so to the notion of reintroduction?
I am no biologist, no wildlife expert but from what I have read of the debates that rage about the danger to farmed stock I understand there is a risk however it is usually the case a pack will stick with what it knows and if a pack that hunt deer is reintroduced then it will stick to that diet. We can’t be sure and I defer to those far more knowledgeable than me to work out how it could be done successfully, I’m just hopeful it will be done, somehow.
Was I scared that night with three wolves pacing the river banks across from where we slept? Not at all, nor were the team of fairly sheltered and slightly insular Fife teenagers. We listened to the people who lived with them, we allowed ourselves to be educated and we understood. The risk was to the horses, we’d had an epic day, two pack horses had broken loose and fled into the undergrowth, it took hours for the riders to find them and bring them back soaked in sweat and therefore emanating an enticing cologne to all wolves in the area! As we settled down for the night the wranglers told us the wolves would come, they set a fire and in turn keep watch through the night. I slept sound, only frustrated I did not actually see these beautiful animals but then if I did see them it would mean they would be too close to our horses and that would mean trouble.
Nor did I worry when canoeing with my family, including children, through a vast area of Southern Sweden where wolf exisited in the highest density of the country. We did not see nor hear any, or moose who we were told we could not avoid! Oh well, we did see beaver. Why would I worry, what is a wolf going to do to me? It is a well known fact there has been no recorded unprovoked attack on a human in their history and I am not going to stick my head into an occupied wolf den.
So would I feel comfortable walking the hills and mountains of the Scottish Highlands or camp out in remote glens with the knowledge there are wolves roaming the area? Most definitely yes, indeed I would welcome it. I doubt I’d see them, they are far too clever and wary of man but to hear a packs’ howl resonate round a far corrie, oh please! The thing is, I have heard wolf howl over Scottish moorland, lain in bed straining to hear every note and then falling asleep my child’s mind creating wondrous dreams. Staying at our friends’ cottage near Kincraig meant every winter we’d hear the pack held in the nearby safari park and it is a pleasing childhood memory. It would be, for me, a truly awesome thing to hear that sound again only with no fences in the way, a haunting mist of sound across our wilderness, the wolves’ and mine.
Further Reading: Check out Wilderness Guide and Wildlife expert, Jonathan Willet’s explanation of the arguments for and against species re-introduction.