Life

Take On Nature: It's time to reintroduce wolves to Ireland

The last wolf in Ireland was believed to have been hunted down and killed after killing sheep on the slopes of Mount Leinster in Co Carlow in 1786

THE English writer Laurie Lee in his novel As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning records his journey on foot through Spain in 1935 and 36 just before the Spanish Civil War broke out.

On his first night on a Galician hillside he recalls being attacked by wild dogs… “or they may have been Galician wolves. They came slinking and snarling along the ridge of my crater, hackles bristling against the moon”.

Lee fights them off by throwing stones at them and shining a torch into their eyes but when he drives them away and falls into a nightmare doze he dreams of “feeling their hot yellow teeth in my bones”.

Lee’s journey south took him through the Zamora region in Castilla Y Leon, which borders Portugal, and in the Sierra de la Culebra (Snake Mountains) a sizeable population of Iberian wolves still roam wild.

During a visit two weeks ago, the wide rolling plains of much of Castilla rose into a hilly landscape of lakes, roaring rivers and woodland.

This is hiking country, through huge swathes of pine and oak forest on low-slung mountains, rising to just over 1,000 metres.

Unseen by me, although strangely comforting if slightly unsettling to know, packs of wild wolves still hunt in this area.

The last wolf in Ireland was believed to have been hunted down and killed after killing sheep on the slopes of Mount Leinster in Co Carlow in 1786, although there are local legends that some survived until the 19th century.

They have become a symbol of predatory danger in our collective memory, an animal to be feared and that has been hunted to extinction throughout most of Europe.

In one of the most memorable scenes in cinema, Dr Yuri Zhivago, played by Omar Shariff, stands at the door of an ice-encrusted house and listens to the sound of a pack of wolves howling in the winter night.

He can see their shadowy forms on the snow-covered landscape in a scene that is also an allegory for the authoritarian forces that are closing in on the individualistic poet Zhivago and his lover Lara.

In many ways humans projected our own violence on to wolves and their persecution was a result of humanity's need to dominate and control the wild and unpredictable.

I remember a memorable afternoon in a house on the slopes of Mangerton Mountain in Co Kerry talking to the Irish poet and philosopher John Moriarty, who died 10 years ago next week.

A Blakeian figure, Moriarty in his writing portrayed modern humanity in terms of myth from throughout the world and symbolised modern Ireland in terms of the ancient Fomorians out to exploit and conquer nature rather than be a part of it.

He wrote, the Fomorians had features "hanging like seaweed when the tide is out, their tongues the colour and shape of cormorant tongues, the clamour of the ocean their talk". Their arrival in Ireland saw "forests cut down, rivers rerouted, towers everywhere, it was soon clear it must come to a fight".

In the epic battles that followed it was ultimately the Fomorians who were victorious and who dominate the psychic and physical makeup of the modern Irish, defeating the ethereal Tuatha Dé Dannan who had been "harmonised to all things... of one mind with the wind and rain”.

Despite the Fomorian domination of modern Ireland, Moriarty suggested that there is still enough of the Dé Dannan in us that we can sometimes hear and see beyond the coarse world of Ireland to the more subtle one.

A tangible manifestation of that has been great efforts in recent years to reverse the massive deforestation on the island with a focus on planting native trees. Perhaps the next step in reharmonising ourselves with the landscape that allowed us to flourish is to repopulate our extinct species.

Time to bring back the wolf.

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