According to the 9th Century Anglo Saxon Chronicles, key historic manuscripts written during the reign of King Alfred the Great, January was known as ‘Wolf Manoth’. This was a more stable meteorological era, with native Eurasian wolves almost guaranteed to come out of the relative safety of the woods to approach human settlements for food in harsher weather. They were perceived, not surprisingly, as an agri-cultural threat. And so Wolf Manoth was deemed the first full month of wolf hunts by the all-prevailing feudal nobility.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Medaeival Renaissance, with bloody Saxon invasion and the spread of Christianity, any indigenous pagan reverence to nature was lost. There was a drive to dominate land, defend it, convert and reap it.
Britain’s native wolf, Canis lupus lupus, the Eurasian Wolf (or perhaps a sub-species), was said to be as big an animal as ever found in the Arctic. They were noted at battle scenes scavenging on the dead but were equally considered noble, courageous, persevering and tireless. As such, the wolf was often symbolized on the heraldic Arms and Crests of nobility. To kill one was a feather in one’s cap.
In terms of natural history, events of the Middle Ages are a short hop away from our industrially farmed landscapes and sheep-shaped uplands of today. The Welsh Borders were once graced by thick native woodland, plenty of prey species and, before settlement, would have fueled good populations of Eurasian Wolf, largely out of sight of Celts, Romans and Anglo Saxons alike. But as humans warred over these Borderlands and castles were built to occupy and defend, wolves, in predating Royal game species like deer and boar, were out-competing Kings and Princes. Worse still, they posed an increased threat to commoners’ livestock, young children and as a species, were not afforded any Royal protection from them, unlike deer. Their end was perhaps an inevitability. Every last beast — male, female and cub — lost in taming the British Wild.
No-one seems to know for sure where exactly the last pure wolf or breeding pair was killed. Hybrid bones have been discovered and identified, perhaps throwing light on a more gradual intermingling of wolf genes with those of domestic dogs. There are a few locations cited as contenders, however. Somewhere and at some point, the deed was done.
There is a section of the Upper Irfon river, a tributary of the Wye, called Camddwr Bleiddiad, a spectacular place in itself, but all the more exotic when you know the translation… “Wolves’ Gorge”. If you know the Abergwesyn Valley at all, it will be easy for you to imagine wolves up among sheep on the open slopes, or calling to one another on the ridges, above the rush of water. And on Bryn Gawr, in the Desert of Wales,the Cambrian Mountains. Ecological ghosts remembered in a name.
Another place not far away and a contender for that last wolf kill in Britain (possibly as recently as the early 1700s) is the Upper Lugg Valley, also a tributary of the Wye. It rises from north of the Radnor Dome, where prehistoric burial grounds have been found on the summits. There are a few small villages alongside the river as it flows west, Llangunllo, Whitton and on to the town of Presteigne. There’s a steeper, more isolated valley to the South of Llangunllo and a lone village called Bleddfa. Settled a long time before the turnpike road was built in the 19th Century, it was surrounded by a Royal hunting enclosure, otherwise known as the Radnor Forest, the remains of which are now stewarded by NatResWales. The castle there, Bledewach, now a grassy mound, was the scene of fierce Welsh/English skirmishes, and indeed was captured from the Mortimers by Llewelyn ap Gruffydd himself, the last true Welsh Prince, in 1262. Bleddfa can be translated from Welsh to “Wolf’s Nook or Abode”.
Now here’s my own twist. My mother’s paternal family hail from the Upper Lugg Valley. There are remnants of my ancestral DNA scattered in graveyards all around, and we’ve genealogy records relating to one particular hill farm dating back to the early 1700s. It’s not beyond reason that my ancestors may have participated in that supposed last brutal kill, and others before.
Despite my deep beliefs in non-human nature as kin, I am not filled with guilt for the actions of my Medieval ancestors. Neither do I feel compelled to put this obvious wrong right. But I do, with a biocentric consequentialist leaning*, value the moral worth and high moral standing of wolves.
According to supporters, not least author and columnist, George Monbiot, there are strong ecological arguments to reintroduce the Eurasian wolf to mainland Britain, and I would agree in theory. The wolf of the weald, of the woods, could be a strong symbol of woodland succession, self-will of the land, and a renaissance of our currently denuded shoulders of upland England, Wales and Scotland. New frontiers in ecological science tell us that apex predators, in the few areas around the globe where they are able to exist without human persecution, or where they’ve already been reintroduced, are crucial to “Trophic Cascades.” These are powerful interactions controlling entire ecosystems, where top predators limit the density and/or behavior of prey species, therefore benefiting the next lower trophic level in the ecosystem, and so on. In the case of wolves, they initiate a more natural ecosystem balance down to flora and soils, particularly through the predation of ungulates like deer.
We need to ask ourselves again, however, are we simply playing ‘God’ by restoring historical or forming novel ecosystems? Isn’t this the same old attitude of dominion which caused the demise of the wolf in the first place? What are the guarantees of success in a changing world and a changing climate? Are we not simply trying to assuage collective guilt, acting upon a sense of duty to put things right ecologically or as Monbiot suggests, acting from ecological boredom and the rewilding of our own minds?
I’ve learned recently that funds are being raised for a first major British upland rewilding scheme, in the Desert of Wales.** To succeed, advocates must bring along with them local hillfarmers, communities, estates, any potential intolerance, particularly to wolves should they decide to re-introduce them there in future. Education, particularly in neighbouring settlements but also beyond, of wolf ecology, behaviour and depredation (or deterring techniques to protect pets and livestock) as well as introducing strict regulations in their welfare, prevention of starvation and hunting are vital. We live in the 21st Century, but some still see themselves as ‘traditional country people’ with ‘traditional rights.’
Outlanders imposing new ideas may not be warmly welcomed. Broadly, attitudes may have changed since Tudor times, but in some rural areas, not as much as you might think.
Three hundred wolf heads, five wolf tongues a year, three hundred wolf pelts in exchange for gold coins, property, lands, even freedom was bought by the extirpation of magnificent British wolves. And those individuals forming packs were as social as any human community at the time, with senses and sensitivities even beyond our full comprehension today. We are still naive of the fullness of their being, but we are learning. The wolves that once were, or the wolves that are to be, have moral worth in themselves and rights to exist for their own sake. I suggest we have to look carefully at the potential consequences for them, and indeed, for the hillfarmers and communities. Hopefully these consequences will be positive. For now, I am heartened there will be no wolf killings in Radnorshire this Wolf Manoth, neither by Nobility nor Commoner alike. Sadly, I cannot say the same for foxes.
* More on Prof Robin Attfield’s Biocentric Consequentialism http://doingethics.com/Blog/2008/08/biocentric-consequentialism.html
** Cambrian Wildwood Crowdfunding, Sustain Magazine http://sustainmagazine.com/can-crowdfunding-help-rewild-wales/