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Reintroducing wolves to Highlands may benefit Scottish ecosystems

Reintroducing wild wolves to the Scottish Highlands could have a positive impact on local conservation, says new research published today.

The study suggests that the return of wolves, which were eradicated from the Scottish landscape in 1769, would benefit the local economy and could aid efforts to reforest the highlands and increase bird biodiversity in the region.

The primary benefit of reintroducing wolves, say researchers, would be controlling the population of red deer, which would be their main wild prey in the Highlands. There is currently a large population of red deer in the region – close to the maximum capacity that the ecosystem can support - and their numbers have considerable negative economic and ecological impacts on the region.

The large populations of deer hamper attempts to reforest the region, they compete with livestock for grazing, and trample trees and vegetation necessary to support bird populations. At the moment this high density of deer is controlled by organised culls, which carry a significant cost for local landowners and farmers. Introducing wolves to the region would reduce the need for costly culls, saving landowners’ money whilst restoring balance to the ecosystem.

The team carrying out the study at Imperial College London also surveyed people living in rural Highland communities and in Scottish cities to assess public attitudes towards the reintroduction of wolves to the countryside. Both groups surveyed were generally positive about the idea, although farmers in particular were less positive than other groups, because of the concern that some sheep may be killed by reintroduced wolves. The survey did find, however, that the farmers surveyed were significantly more positive about the idea than the organisation that represents them: the National Farmers Union for Scotland.

Dr EJ Milner-Gulland from Imperial College London’s Division of Biology said: “The pros and cons of reintroducing wolves into Scotland are widely debated, but our study has shown that there would be significant benefits to both the ecosystem and the regional economy if this path was followed. We have shown that reintroducing wolves would significantly reduce the need for expensive culling, and the resulting decline in deer numbers would lead to a marked increase in plant and birdlife biodiversity, and reforesting the area would be easier too.”

Co-author of the study, Dr Tim Coulson, added: “Scotland is a very different case to other parts of the world where wolves have been reintroduced, such as Scandinavia and North America. In these other places there is a culture of deer hunting for meat which has led to conflict between hunters and wolves. As Scotland only supports a small trophy hunting industry, these problems wouldn’t apply.”

Danielle Reeves | alfa
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