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Thursday 5 December 2019

The Grey Wolf was once common on our island

Grey Wolf packs once roamed the Irish countryside
Grey Wolf packs once roamed the Irish countryside

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

Kieran Hickey's researches suggest that in the past the European Grey Wolf, the largest of all wild dogs, was common and widespread throughout the island of Ireland with the notable exception of the bogs and peatlands that cover much of the central part of the country.

Though they are wild dogs, wolves don't bark. Instead they howl. In the past, when there was no electricity and light pollution was unheard of, their howling close by surely struck terror into anyone caught out on a moonless night with a way to go to the safety of home.

Historical records suggest that the population may have reached a peak of between 800 and 1000 animals around the year 1600. After that the population went into decline and the Grey Wolf became extinct as an Irish animal sometime between 1770 and 1786.

While wolves seek out remote places in which to breed and rear their young, they are not shy of people when hungry and have been reported frequenting urban areas. There is a historical account of a wolf hunt in 1596 in Kilmainham described at the time as being close to Dublin city.

In the wild, large prey for wolves in ancient Ireland would have included deer and Wild Boar. Otherwise, unprotected domesticated cattle, horses, sheep and pigs would have been taken. Attacks on humans appear to have been very rare except in times when a hunting pack suffered from starvation and failed to find alternative prey.

There are several reasons why wolves became extinct in Ireland; prominent among them was the growing intolerance of farmers and others to have large wild predators roaming the countryside. Any suggestion of reintroducing the Grey Wolf to our green and pleasant land would, no doubt, be met with an outcry of opposition. And, even if it wasn't, it is extremely unlikely that the island of Ireland has enough wild places of large enough expanse to accommodate a population of wolves.

Wolves live in packs of about 15 animals composed of an alpha male, an alpha female, other adults, juveniles and cubs. Pack discipline is strict; only the two alphas breed. With a muscular body over a metre long and with a mass of some 90kg, the alpha male is a formidable beast.

Lots more fascinating detail in Kieran Hickey's 168-page Wolves in Ireland: A natural and cultural history published in paperback in 2013 by Four Courts Press, Dublin.

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