New book investigates Ireland’s last predator

An Arctic wolf (via Wikimedia Commons)

This article appeared in Sin on November 7 2011. The wolf is one of my favourite animals. 

Dr Kieran Hickey, lecturer in Geography in NUI Galway, has released a new book on Ireland’s last great predator, the wolf. Wolves in Ireland: A Natural and Cultural History traces the story of the Irish wolf, which is believed to become extinct in 1786.

Dr Hickey became interested in wolves while in his final year in UCC. “I was shocked to realise that there were wolves up till recently,” he said. His book deals with both the history of the wolf itself, its extermination in Ireland and its cultural impact.The wolf has got a fearsome reputation. It is the root of many superstitions and is painted as a dark beast to be feared. “Their reputation is far more than the reality… All the children’s nursery rhymes, fairy tales like Red Riding Hood; the wolf is a bad creature. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t underestimate them as a powerful predator, and you’re not dealing with them as individuals, you’re dealing with them as a wolf pack.”

The wolf has a powerful cultural resonance according to Dr Hickey. He describes one folk practice that remains in parts of West Clare and Tipperary. “In some cemeteries… they put the coffin on the ground to confuse the wolves so they wouldn’t go for the body [before burial]. That’s almost a direct link to the wolf.”The book also discusses the possibility of the reintroduction of the wolf into Ireland. Dr Hickey sees this as unlikely. “In an Irish context it’s not possible. It’s not likely for the next 50 years, if ever.”

The Irish landscape is no longer wild enough to support a population of wolves, and the Irish population is now too big. It would also be a costly scheme and Dr Hickey sees little public support for it.

It would be a “nightmare scenario” for farmers. “When you consider sheep losses to domestic dogs… a wolf in a sheep field is like you or I going to a supermarket for a packet of meat.”

Wolves in Ireland: A Natural and Cultural History is published by Four Courts Press and is available from the NUI Galway bookshop.

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