The Return Of The Wolf

The Face of the Wild: Dakota, the female wolf in Colchester Zoo, England (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

I started this blog with the earnest intention of documenting my investigations for a proposed book on wolves.

I began well, with trips to Romania and Scotland, and meeting key figures in that world, but then before I could write up the notes and recordings from those, I was dragged away by other things, some personal, some work, including in the world of horses – as you can see in the article from the Spanish newspaper ABC right – which I will translate and publish online soon – and also the world of bulls, as you can see from the article in Boisdale Life magazine below.

To summarise where I got to: in the Autumn of 2016 I met with the conservationist Paul Lister at his club in Notting Hill in London – via his excellent right hand Sam Sutaria – who not only founded The European Nature Trust, TENT, but also has rather famously been planning to reintroduce wolves to his 23,000-acre Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands, Alladale, for some years. (He recently put a time limit on this project, which is the end of this year, in which times he requires the plans to become concrete: as you can read in The Guardian here.)

Paul is a remarkable man – and a generous host – whose dedication to conservation is practically without comparison. So, when the Daily Mail sent me to Romania for a travel article  – online here – another area where he has profound conservation interests, we decided to join forces.

It was a happy coincidence that on the day we met in Transylvania the Romanian parliament had just approved his most ambitious project there: the foundation of the largest National Park in Europe in the Făgăraș Mountains, named in the press as Europe’s Yellowstone Park (no coincidence given what I describe below.)

Paul, Christoph and I celebrate the announcement at Equus Silvania into the night (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

This was not his dream – and labour – alone, but also that of many others including the wolf biologist Christoph Promberger (whose Transylvanian horse-trekking ranch Equus Silvania I also wrote up in my article), with whom he had formed Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) in 2009.

Containing the largest remaining chunk of virgin forest – untouched by man since the dawn of time – and a large proportion of Romania’s apex predators, i.e. 40% of Europe’s wolves, bears and lynx, it is both extraordinarily ambitious and extraordinarily noble as a project.

In the valley is some of the last virgin forest in Europe. (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

And partaking in any of TENT’s many events in London, like their upcoming UK premiere of the documentary 100 Days Of Solitude at BAFTA, tickets online here , contributes directly to that work.

Having spent my time so enjoyably and informatively in Romania with Paul (and the representatives of Britain’s Woodland Trust who joined us in our helicopter to view the new park.) Paul then invited me to see his Alladale Estate.

There I had the honour and pleasure to meet the man behind the most successful conservation intervention of the past quarter century, Doug Smith, chief biologist of the US National Parks Service, who was responsible for the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park in 1995 and the extraordinary ecological results that followed (along with Doug’s charming wife and children.)

The view from my bedroom window at Alladale (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

There followed days of walking, talking, mountain biking – Paul is terrifyingly energetic and the Smith’s are the definition of the great American outdoorsmen (and women) – and informal assessment for this place as a land for wolves. The answer was, in theory at least, positive.

So, hopefully this winter will see me reconnect with this project, the book that will come from it – and the characters that will people it – from Transylvania to Yellowstone, with the Highlands of Scotland between them. Now is the time. I was there at the beginning, I intend to be there at the end.

In the meantime, do the right thing, and support TENT by signing up to their newsletters, joining their amazing experiences in Romania and the UK, attending their events, and raising their profiles so we can help turn a part of Scotland back into the Great Forest of Caledon it once was, rather than the soggy ecological desert the Highlands currently are, and preserve those parts of Europe that are still in good shape, conservation-wise, like Romania and here in Spain where Paul has also partnered up, and leave the world a little better than we found it.

Plastic in the water is not the only problem we face…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The northernmost remnant of the original Neolithic Forest on the mainland of Britain, in the Alladale Estate, in the Highlands of Scotland

The Beast Of Waste And Desolation

The new wolf, Kera, at Colchester Zoo, on the day she arrived, May 16, 2016 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)
The new wolf, Kera, at Colchester Zoo, on the day she arrived, March 16, 2016 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Five years ago to the day, I sent the final proofs of my manuscript on my time with the fighting bulls of Spain to Profile Books.

Into The Arena did okay, and became something of a set text on that arcane and archaic, bloody and beautiful world in the English language. However, I came to it as a lover of animals, as I wrote in an essay on the subject in Prospect magazine in 2008:

I have always been an animal lover. I grew up with cats, dogs and horses reading the novels of Gerald Durrell, Richard Adams and Gavin Maxwell, joined the WWF before I was ten and began as an undergraduate at Oxford as a biologist…

The author and his first cat
The author and his first pet, ‘Puddy’

My researches in this area, when I was working on philosophy of biology and consciousness at the University of London, even included spending time with Great Apes at Georgia State University and writing arguing for improved captive welfare in a cover essay for the Financial Times in 2001 (reprinted on my blog here.)

However, where I really wanted to go in terms of research was wolves and the domestic subspecie(s) of them, dogs.

I had begun corresponding with L. David Mech, the father of wolf biology – who brought the phrase ‘alpha male’ into common usage – in early 2009 when I had been asked by Prospect to review Mark Rowlands’ book The Philosopher And The Wolf.

Rowlands and I would fail to see eye-to-eye when he misleadingly reviewed Into The Arena for The Times Literary Supplement. Our exchange in the letters pages of The TLS, reprinted here, spilled over into the mainstream press.

Click on image for full article
Click on image for full article

I got back in touch with Professor Mech in 2012, whose book Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation is the bible on the subject, about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park in the United States. As I did with Paul Lister, who spoke about his hopes of reintroducing wolves in Scotland and the realities of having done so in Romania.

Wolves bookI then got diverted by working on my novel The Devil’s Voice, but have always said in interviews, right up to my most recent, in Spain, for ¡Hola! magazine, that,

My next book will be non-fiction about wolves. I am planning to go and study them in America. I have a great love of wildlife.

Recently, this has become a reality. This month I have spent my weekdays at Colchester Zoo, a few miles from my family home, as they begin to form a new pack of wolves and my weekends with family friends who are forming a very different, and yet very similar, pack of their own.


Lottie, the Daschund puppy of Andrew Bancroft Cooke, and Pepper, the Labrador of his father Anthony
Lottie, the Daschund puppy of Andrew Bancroft Cooke, and Pepper, the Labrador puppy of his father Anthony

I’ve been rereading Mech and Konrad Lorenz on the ethology, and the stories of Ernest Seton Thompson’s ‘Lobo’ and Jack London’s ‘White Fang’. I went further back to the symbolic man who ‘catches the wolf in the corn’ in Silesia in Frazer’s Golden Bough and Fenrir, the wolf at the end of the world in the Norse myths of the Elder Edda.

I came to realise that my book should include everything, from our co-evolution – and the creation of the dog and its creation of modern man – to our mythology and our projection onto them of our deepest and darkest desires, hopes and hatreds. (What I once termed in Frieze magazine, “anthropopsychism”.)

How else has man taken a mid-size social predatory carnivorous mammal, which does exactly what you’d expect from such an animal, and gone from calling it “the beast of waste and desolation” – in Teddy Roosevelt’s memorable phrase – to perceiving it as some kind of spirit-animal cum cuddly toy?

Totemic madnesses both.

I could see the end of such a book: I would have to buy a dog of my own (what else are publisher’s advances for?) How to begin though?

And then the Daily Mail asked me to go to Transylvania, to the Carpathian mountains, with the largest virgin forests left in Europe and the greatest population of wolves. So the land of Dracula I fly, to see “the children of the night”.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Twitter: @fiskeharrison

(P.S. For anyone interested, the title of this blog and working title of my book, comes from this scene here in the excellent film Sicario.)