The reintroduction of wolves

Image Credit: Wildfaces on pixabay

With calls to reintroduce Irish wolf populations growing, Michael Bergin examines both sides of the debate

In recent years, as climate concerns have become an ever-more-important focus for policymakers, there have been steadily increasing calls for radical climate and environmental action. Such calls generally manifest themselves in extreme protests, such as the “Just Stop Oil” movement in the UK, however in the case of Ireland, chief amongst these radical ideas is the Green Party’s one-time proposal to reintroduce wolves.

Wolf reintroduction, it is argued, can act as a natural means to keep deer populations in check. These deer populations are regularly responsible for overgrazing of vulnerable soils around the country, and as such, effective means of maintaining their numbers are required. It has become all too apparent that in this regard, government policies have failed to keep deer numbers at a stable level. 

In 1995, as part of the government’s culling policy, 4,500 deer were culled. However, by 2020, that number had risen to 40,000, a tenfold increase in as little as 25 years. Speaking on RTE Radio, Killian McLaughlin, founder of Wild Ireland, spoke of how efforts to decrease deer numbers have inadvertently lead to an increase in their number.

“You’re knocking out the dominant animals that are holding territory and subordinate animals at bay when the big fella gets taken out”, he said. “Figures from the Department of Agriculture reflect that.”

The debate is, however, a highly contentious one. In 2019, the Irish Times reported that Green Party leader Eamonn Ryan had floated the idea, a story which was met with derision in rural communities and farm groups. By the time of the 2020 general election, the idea had been removed from the Green Party’s official programme for government.

Amongst the concerns that rural leaders have expressed regarding the move, is the potential for livestock to be targeted by stray wolf populations. Though Mr. McLaughlin pointed to US studies which indicated that livestock made up less than 1% of the average wolf’s diet, countervailing evidence would suggest otherwise. In Austria, where wolf populations roam relatively freely, there has been a 230% increase in wolf attacks on livestock in recent years. Perhaps the Turkish model, in which farmers are compensated by the government for wolf attacks on sheep, could offer room for movement on the issue.

Proponents of wolf reintroduction point to the successful reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park in 1995, which has been shown to have reined in deer populations to a desirable standard. However, critics would argue that Ireland does not have a national park comparable in scale with Yellowstone, and that large parts of Yellowstone are not commercially farmed, so there are bound to be fewer opportunities for wolves to attack livestock.

The last wolf in Ireland was allegedly killed in 1786, a century after the last reported sighting in England.