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Wolf

Canis lupus lupus

A vital top predator that can have a major impact on the landscape through influencing the behaviour of herbivores

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At a glance

Status

Extinct in Britain, alive in Europe

Shapes the landscape through

Denning, scenting, seed dispersal

Preferred hangout

Woodlands, scrublands

Weight

32 kg

Length

1.2 metres

Speed

62 km/h

How it shapes the landscape

A keystone species, the wolf, like lynx, alters the behaviour of its prey species, in this instance, primarily deer. This can reduce overgrazing and support the establishment of woodlands and mosaic habitats, which in turn boosts biodiversity and transforms landscapes. The carcasses of wolf kills provide food opportunities for many creatures, adding to abundance of wildlife. 

Where it likes to be

Wolves like woodland and scrubland.

How much space they need

Wolves need a home range of tens of kilometres, with enough habitat and food to maintain a healthy pack. Studies have shown that wolves prefer to hunt wild prey, such as deer, wild boar and other ungulates. They will sometimes prey on livestock, often when they’re travelling alone if the pack has been disrupted or they’re a young wolf looking for a mate to establish their own pack. In mainland Europe, where wolves are present, the use of guard dogs and other protections can be effective, along with compensation schemes for livestock owners.

Background story

Wolves were the last of Britain’s top predators to be hunted to extinction. It’s believed they disappeared sometime in the 18th century, following centuries of persecution. Wolves were hunted and persecuted across Europe and went extinct across most of western Europe, hanging on places such as Italy, Poland and Bulgaria.

Since the banning of wolf hunting in Poland in the 1990s, the wolf population has been recovering and spreading west. Wolves have successfully established in Germany and reached as far as the Netherlands and Denmark.

Special Power

Alters habitats far beyond what would be expected due to their influence on herbivores
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Can we have them in Britain?

While there is sufficient habitat and wild prey for the establishment of wolves in parts of Scotland, Wales and England, at present there are no plans to reintroduce them. Any reintroduction would have to be carefully considered and have public support. Countries in Europe that have run wolf education programmes have been most successful at welcoming them back. There would have to be changes in the way livestock is managed (with compensation schemes in place) to enable this key ecosystem engineer to return. 

In summary

  • Keystone species
  • Britain’s last top predator to become extinct
  • Preys primarily on red and roe deer, and to a lesser extent wild boar and beaver. They will prey on livestock in some situations
  • Subject to much mythologising and demonisation, wolves live in family packs that closely mimic human family structures
  • Wolves have naturally dispersed across most of Europe but still suffer persecution (often illegally)

Images: Grey wolf/​Shutterstock and Grey wolves in Europe — Kenton D. Gomez

Next in Reintroductions and key species

European bison

Through grazing, foraging, wallowing and trampling, the hefty bison boosts habitat diversification