“When it comes to wolves,” says rewilding pioneer, Derek Gow, “what's required is courage; political courage. Even though the animals can be radio-satellite collared so we know the location of every wolf, I doubt that the powers that be in Scotland and Nature Scot will have any interest in this at all.

“They will do nothing until they are explicitly politically told to do something. Politically nothing will happen until there is a groundswell of public opinion for this animal.”

Gow lives on a 300-acre farm on the Devon-Cornwall border, which he has been rewilding with wild boar, white stork and beavers, as well as, within a large enclosure, lynx -  having previously reared sheep and cattle. But the story of his passion for nature, and the wolf, begins in his Scottish childhood, near Biggar, at the edge of the Southern Uplands.

What sparked both Gow’s new book about the predator's history, Hunt for the Shadow Wolf: The Lost History of Wolves in Britain, and his young imagination was a story that his grandmother told him of a place near his childhood home, called Wolf Clyde, said to be the site where the last wolf was killed on the Clyde. In her tale, the wolf was killed by a woman with a griddle pan.

“Of course, it wasn’t the last wolf,” he says, “and it’s debatable whether there was ever a wolf there.” When he looked back at historical documents he found that Wolf Clyde was actually ‘Wolchclide’ or Wathclyde. Hotes that ‘Wath’ translates either as a place with a river ford or a place with a fort. Gow believes Scotland's Flow Country was probably home to the last wolves on mainland Britain and that they “lived and died in this sanctuary". One account suggests a sighting even as late as 1929.

As a boy, it had fascinated him that a wolf might once have lived in what felt to him like a tame landscape. “The idea that Scotland had been a place where at one point, creatures like wolves had made their home seemed incredible to me.”Derek Gow with a boarDerek Gow with a boar (Image: Jonny Weeks)

A key strand in his book is a deep dive into what we can learn from old place names of Britain. “When you start to look at the older languages, the wolf is the most commonly recorded mammal in place names. It was once a species that grasped our imagination very firmly and we recorded right the way through the whole landscape from the very north of Scotland to the very south of England."

Gow is a passionate and provocative advocate for rewilding, perhaps best known for his role in the reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver, but also water voles, white stork and more recently wildcats.

While reintroduction is not exactly what Hunt for the Shadow Wolf is about, it haunts the book. Gow notes, for instance, that the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in its official reintroduction guidelines, requires that both the cause of a species’ extirpation and the absence of the initial drivers of its extinction are understood before any programme of restoration begins.

His book is, at least in part, an attempt at greater understanding – and the story he tells is one of far-ranging “domination and destruction”, not just of wolves, but other animals and people. 

It is a portrait of persecution of the wolf in Britain that is dramatic and horrifying – and also tied to Christian monasticism.

But the story of the wolf is also, Gow says, that of another species. Sheep farming and wolf persecution came “hand in glove”, and chiefly responsible for bringing that culture to Britain was a monastic order, the Cistercians. Early medieval churchmen, were, he writes  “sheep managers of note”, their flocks, their "gold”.

“The Cistercians come to the Welsh borders in the late 1100s,” he says, “and bear in mind this was an order who left the Benedictine orders because their teachings were way too frivolous.”

“They were a fairly formidable and very unforgiving people. But behind that was a conviction of belief that the order and profitability of land is the work of the Lord. For them things that were outwith the work of the Lord were outlaws, be they human, robbers, murderers, wolves, or whatever else.”

By the late 13th century, in the Scottish Borders, for instance, Cistercians at Melrose Abbey, would own more than 13,000 sheep.

A few hundred years later, sheep were also key in the Highland clearances. “If you look at what happened after the ‘45 rebellion whereby the lords in the north marry into the English aristocracy What they became interested in was money - and as soon as that happened, the sheep come north with English shepherds or Border shepherds. Then the people that have lived there under the patronage of the lairds, Highland chiefs, are all carted off to Canada, burnt out of their houses.”

Sheep farming, he adds, was “nothing to do with Highland culture and was quite alien". "In the beginning they were seen as a symbol of tyranny absolute and you’ve got people like Thomas More and crofters rebellions reacting against the sheep and the imposition of everything that came with them.”

It was wool, and its price, he describes, that drove the expansion of sheep farming in Scotland, and with it the clearances. But what kept it around up until today were subsidies. “What bedded those sheep in," he says, "has been our membership of the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy and the fact that you got paid at certain times headage for just keeping a sheep. It was that system that then basically transmogrified into the single farm payment.”

It is a way of life, he says, “that has been privileged for a lifetime and a half”. 

“Sheep are not evil,” he writes. “It’s how we keep them that hurts. Without vast public subsidies, they would simply cease to exist and yet, any time a proposal to reintroduce a species as modest as a woodcat or marten is proposed in extreme rural circles, the ridiculous prospect that they might ‘eat a lamb’ seals their doom.”

Gow is combative and dismissive of the objections of farmers to the reintroduction of predators. “At the end of the day, farmers are a tiny part of society and though their views have to be listened to, it should not be the case that hundred thousand people dictate to 76 million how they are going to live.”

It’s debatable when the last wolf in Scotland was killed, but the United Kingdom has been near wolfless for around 300 years, and, as Gow points out, they are not going to come back on their own. If we want them, we are “going to have to go and get them”.

European wolfEuropean wolf (Image: Tom Anders)

“They’re never going to swim from continental Europe, though they’re good swimmers.”

Wolf reintroduction, he notes, would require a shift to a different style of sheep farming. He notes that certain systems have existed in coexistence with the wolf. 

“Sheep husbandry in eastern Europe and Eurasia still operates in, parts, by a method that involves driving them into caves at night, or faulds, or bounds, and people are with the sheep, moving through an environment and taking care of them.”

That kind of approach, he says, brings an ecological richness. “Because they’re moving on all the time and they distribute the seeds of the alpine plants down into the drove roads of the lowlands, by browsing things sporadically like juniper and the high altitude shrubs. They open up grasslands that can become incredibly rich."

The book is filled with horrifying stories not just of the hunting and killing of the wolf, but also its demonisation and torture, particularly by those that caught them in wolf traps across the country. The persecution of the wolf was, Gow argues, part of a “whole culture of carcinogenic hatred that was developed in Western Europe and in Britain, with its fulcrum around the predators, the primitive people”.

“As soon as you tell lies about what the creature is and what it can do or can't do,  before long you get people believing and hating. You give them the ability to indulge their hate and to act out the darkest things that are in their heart and they take it. We know very well from our colonial history how that applies to people.”

In Europe, the wolf is on the rise,  populations having surged by 1,800% since the 1970s when it was near extirpated. There are even, for instance, nine wolf packs in the Netherlands.


An argument sometimes given in favour of reintroduction of wolves is that they would help control the deer – which are in such high numbers across Scotland that they are being culled.

Gow argues that the presence of the wolf would alter deer movements, allowing woodland to flourish. “You go to the guys in the Veluwe," he says, "and they will tell you that the deer have changed. They cannot easily feed where they once fed with great ease. Their days of languor are over. They’ve got to constantly watch what they do next - because the wolf will find them.”

Another point that Gow makes is that man’s best friend, the dog, is responsible for tens of thousands of times more human deaths than the wolf. He says: “There are 50 -80,000 dog attacks or kills of humans every year worldwide. In the last twenty years, wolves have killed 12 people.”

In Hunt for the Shadow Wolf, he writes, "One day, when wolves are brought back to Britain, their return will not simply be about land healing. We will consciously or not be healing ourselves." 

But, right now,  he sees little political will behind this cause. “I see no courage or vision in the nature conservation authorities in Britain, to see anything like this happen," he says. "They’re more concerned about translocating small beetles and parasites than anything else.

"I don’t think there will be any movement with regard to the reintroduction of the wolf in Britain, unless you get a tough little group of people who start to make a real fuss about it -  and they have to carry the large languid organisations like the John Muir Trust and others with them.”