New research by a team from the University of Sussex and the University of Kent shows that the use of large fenced reserves could reintroduce wolves in the Scottish Highlands.
Currently, the large population of red deer in parts of Scotland is causing over-grazing and preventing the regeneration of nature in certain areas, leaving more than one third of native woodlands in an unfavourable condition. The introduction of large fenced reserves could reintroduce wolves into these areas, which in turn would help to control the population of red deer.
The advantages of a fenced area is that it could help grey wolves – also known as timber wolves – achieve the high population densities needed to control the high numbers of red deer in the Scottish Highlands while limiting encounters between wolves and people in the area.
How many wolves are needed?
The researchers concluded that some 80 wolves per 1,000km2 would be needed to effectively reduce the population of red deer, of which there are estimated to be up to 40 per 1km2. The reintroduction of the grey wolf into Scotland would have little benefit to the conservation of the species, but would have a key impact across the ecosystem in Scotland.
The team concluded that a fence which could retain 75% of dispersing wolves within a reserve would be optimum to ensure the level of population growth in grey wolves necessary to reducing red deer numbers, without posing a significant overall threat to the species.
It added that while fences are an unpopular in conservation, large fenced reserves could reintroduce wolves by ensuring they are able to establish new territory, encouraging dispersal and preventing problems seen in other wolf rewilding projects, such as inbreeding.
What role does fencing typically play in rewilding and conservation?
According to Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU at Oxford University and co-author of the study, argued that while the use of fences in rewilding is still under debate, the new study demonstrates the potential they could play by simulating their implementation.
He said: “Scotland can lead Europe in thinking about how conservation, large fenced reserves and tourism can reframe rural economies. The role of fencing in the conservation of big predators is globally a hot topic. So far our results are just simulations made from the safety of a desk, but they offer a highly original way of thinking about restoring nature and natural processes.”