The last credible sighting of an Irish grey wolf wandering wild was in 1786. Around this time the animal was killed and the species never seen again outside of captivity. More than 230 years later, the wolf is now a talking point in a country where it was pushed into oblivion.
Howling wolves roaming the Irish countryside, through misty woods and over dew-dropped hillsides, sounds more like a mythical Ireland. But the country did have a sustainable wolf population once. University College Cork lecturer Dr Kieran Hickey is a leading expert on the matter.
The academic’s wolf writings delve into archaeology, place-name lore, historical legislation and the little scientific literature available. The result is an assessment as comprehensive as you’re likely to find.
In a perspective on the animal’s decline, Dr Hickey estimates that wolf numbers may have been as high as 800 to 1,000 in the 17th century. A sharp decline in fortunes came about in the mid-1600s and the species never recovered.
In 1652, Oliver Cromwell’s government in Ireland promised bounties to people willing to exterminate wolves. The demonization, along with deforestation, contributed to the animal’s disappearance, according to Dr Hickey’s analysis. Near Mount Leinster, between counties Carlow and Wexford, the last documented wolf was killed.
A recent suggestion by the Irish Green Party to bring back wolves as part of a new forestry policy raised more than a few eyebrows.
“Bring back a sense of wildness,’ the party's leader Eamon Ryan said. "Bring back balance of ecology in the sense that those wolves would prey on deer that are holding back forestry”.
For all the chatter and headlines it incurred, the government had outlined its position on the idea last June. Among the chief reasons for being against it - the belief that wolves have limited chances of survival in modern Ireland.
“Reintroducing a species back into its former range is fraught with difficulties,” Minister for Culture and Heritage Josepha Madigan said, responding to a parliamentary question on the matter.
“The wolf became extinct in Ireland towards the end of the 18th century. Its demise was brought about by a number of factors including deforestation, the expansion of agriculture, and persecution. There is limited evidence that those causes of its previous extinction have been removed.”
State of nature
Pádraic Fogarty, a campaign officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, says the fact big question marks hang over a wolf revival is “an admission of how poor our conservation ethic has been in Ireland.”
In October, a report by leading biodiversity agencies classed 2,450 species, including plants, birds, and insects, as at-risk on the island of Ireland.
Wolves have been held up as guardians of nature. Wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 is credited with preventing overgrazing by elk and boosting the ecosystem - an impact described as a cascade effect. So could this happen in Ireland?
An environmental scientist, Mr Fogarty is cautious about comparisons to Yellowstone National Park - studies have suggested the wolf impact to be slightly exaggerated.
“Yellowstone National Park was an intact ecosystem until the wolves disappeared. Then they were brought back and it became an intact ecosystem again. But in Ireland, we don’t have anything resembling an intact ecosystem,” Padraic explains.
“We've driven more than 120 different plant and animals to extinction. So it’s very hard to predict the effect a reintroduction of wolves would have on things like the wider food chain - we just don’t really know.”
Wolf friendly future?
Among fears about wolf repopulation is whether the country has enough wild territory to keep them out of population centres. At 11 per cent, Ireland’s forest cover is at the highest recorded percentage in 350 years. But despite this, the nation’s woodland coverage ranks as one of the smallest in Europe, according to Teagasc, the country’s forestry agency.
Wolves don't need a national park or acres of tree cover to thrive, Mr Fogarty explains.
“If wolves can survive in Holland, I’m pretty sure they can survive in Ireland,” he says, before adding that the animals need a society keen on biodiversity and an environment free from persecution.
“Ultimately, it’s not really a practical argument about whether we can bring wolves back or where to put them. It’s really about whether we can accept them? Can we bring them back and not shoot them or persecute them? That’s a debate that has to be had.”
For Mr Fogarty, repopulation attempts will likely only happen after lengthy discussion. These conversations could take between 10 to 20 years.
Talk of a wolf friendly future could be the kick-starter to a serious debate about agriculture, climate change, and land management in Ireland.
“What needs to happen is for communities around the country to have an honest discussion about what has happened to nature in Ireland and how we have driven it to the brink," Pádraic says.
“We’re not really talking about wolves in isolation. But the great advantage of the debate is that it does make us focus on key issues.”
It remains to be seen whether wolf reintroduction becomes anything more than a headline or soundbite. But if people get over the initial shock of the idea, then we could see the return of an Irish carnivore one day. In the meantime, the wolf might have to settle for being an ecological objective.