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Why do we fear wolves so much?

With wolf numbers flourishing, are government cuts to blame?

By on Monday, 6 January 2014

Wolf Hunt

Here is a fascinating article from this weekend’s Observer, entitled “From the steppe to central Spain, Europe echoes to the howl of the wolf”, carrying the informative subtitle: “The shepherds’ ancient foe is back in numbers – and now packs are breeding a mere 40 miles from Madrid.”

There have always been wolves in Russia, but they are something of a rarity in western Europe. Indeed, they were hunted to extinction in the environs of Paris by, among others, the Grand Dauphin, only legitimate son of Louis XIV, who died in 1711. The last wolf in the British Isles was killed by Sir Ewan Cameron at Killiecrankie in 1680, or so it is believed; they are thought to have become extinct in England some time during the reign of Henry VII.

Indeed, one has the strong impression that hunting wolves to extinction was very much part of the Enlightenment Project, a sign of progress and the spread of civilisation. Conversely, fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, which quite literally demonise wolves, are also a sign of the ancient fears that lurk in our subconsciousness.

As the Observer article tells us, wolves are now spreading from their Alpine redoubt to which they had been confined and turning up in the mountains not far from Madrid: this represents a considerable feat, a migration across swathes of country that is cut up by roads and fences and other barriers to wildlife. What brave and resourceful creatures wolves must be! Indeed, it is surely only a matter of time before they sneak aboard some cross-Channel ferry, or walk through the Channel tunnel, and reclaim their ancient British heritage. Where I live, which is not far from the M25, the deer population has hugely increased of late. The wolves would have plenty to eat if, or when, they get over here.

But why has the Observer run with this story now? Why is it an interesting story? One assumes of course that the story has a factual basis, and that the 2,000 wolves now in Spain really are there, and are not imaginary immigrants, but scientifically verifiable ones.

There are several things that make this story a good one.

First, it shows us that progress, by which we often mean the taming of nature, and the imposition of the human will on that which is irrational and savage, is fragile. True, we have built a civilisation here in Europe, but it would be hubristic to see our achievements as destined to last come what may.

Interestingly, the Observer article links the return of the wolves with economic recession, which is a quite reasonable thing to do; after all wolves are pests and pest-control costs money, though wolves are a little more fascinating and frightening than mice and cockroaches. The article specifically mentions the retreat of agriculture and the phenomenon of “abandoned land”. Rural depopulation and the sight of agri deserti was a phenomenon of the late Roman Empire in the years of its decline. So, the progress of wolves, now only 40 km from Madrid, remember, goes hand in hand with the decline of our civilsation.

The other thing that this story shows is that our fears, no matter how remote they may be, have not and will never go away. To fear wolves is pretty irrational for most of us. The howl of the wolf should not really cause a shiver to run down our collective spine. But the idea that wolves are somehow “getting closer” is not something that most people would be comfortable with. It is worth remembering that the British psyche is driven by many subconscious fears, of which fear of wolves is only one. To the wolves, blameless creatures that they are, we might add, in no particular order, fear of foreign immigrants, fear of gypsies, fear of Roman Catholics, fear of Germans, and many other irrational phobias. Sometimes these fears are linked, as in these lines from Milton’s Lycidas:

Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said.

The wolf in question is of course the Roman Catholic Church. Nice one!

One last thing. In certain stories, such as the tale of Romulus and Remus, wolves play a benevolent role, and are seen as admirable creatures. The ancient Romans believed their founder to have been suckled by a wolf and perhaps to have imbibed wolf-like qualities in the process. What does that say about them? And what does our lack of ease with wolves say about us?