Scientists have proposed the reintroduction of wolves in the Scottish Highlands. The area is proposed as a test site for a major experiment to help control the populations and behavior of red deer that in the past 250 years have utterly changed large ecosystems in the region. It is modeled on research carried out in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere, which has shown that the absence of large predators such as wolves has allowed deer, elk and other animals to badly overgraze lands and destroy entire ecosystems. “Wolves were last found in Scotland more than 250 years ago, and as a result it’s likely that very few natural areas now bear much resemblance to their native conditions,” said William Ripple, a professor of forest ecosystems and society at Oregon State University.
The idea is to restore what are termed as “landscapes of fear”: Large predators do not only help to control the populations of grazing animals, but also alter their behavior. The threat of predation and attack can fundamentally change the movement and activities of grazing animals all round the year in ways that human hunting fails to do.
Native red deer in Scotland – essentially the same animal as elk in the United States – have not faced wolf predation or fear for at least 250 years. Deer densities in Scotland are now so high they are close to the food-limiting carrying capacity of the land, and have serious consequences on native Scots pine and birch regeneration.