Photography by Phil Seu

Once There Were Wolves

This is excerpted from Once There Were Wolves (Flatiron Books).
Read an interview about the novel.

 

THE SCHOOL AUDITORIUM has no heating; the air within feels even colder than it does outside. My fingers are turning numb as I sink into a backrow seat beside Niels and Zoe. There is a woman in the audience holding a sign that reads CIGARETTES AND WOLVES, KILLERS THAT COME IN PACKS and a kid waving one that says WILL THERE BE ANY DEER LEFT WHEN I GROW UP? I roll my eyes.

On the stage sit a row of people. Evan is among them, our spokesperson, chosen not only because he is articulate and charismatic, but because he’s the only one in our core team who is Scottish, and this, we’ve been told, is likely to land better with the locals. Niels by contrast is a stiff Scandinavian who has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of our field but zero people skills and a thick Norwegian accent, Zoe is an American data analyst who doesn’t like the outdoors and makes no secret of this, while I am a bad-tempered Australian who finds it hard to hide contempt and sucks at public speaking. Next to Evan sits Anne, the warrior who singlehandedly got this project through Parliament and also a massive pain in my ass. I don’t know who the rest of the people up there are, I suppose prominent members of the community. In the crowd I know there are members of the farmers union, the gamekeepers union, and the Hillwalkers group, plus dozens of landowners from the entire Cairngorms region—all of whom have opposed our project. And despite my teasing with Anne, I do understand why. There are no members of corporate agriculture here tonight. These people are mostly local farmers living under massive financial pressure, and a perceived threat to their hard-earned livelihoods is a frightening thing. It’s Evan’s job to try and ease some of that fear.

One of the men on the stage stands to speak, white-haired and pairing his traditional tartan kilt with a more casual knit pullover. “Most of you know me but for any who don’t, I’m Mayor Andy Oakes,” he says. “This meeting’s been called to give you some necessary information and for you to voice your concerns and hopefully have them appeased. Here to speak to us tonight is Anne Barrie, head of the Wolf Trust, in cooperation with Rewilding Scotland, and Evan Long, who’s one of the biologists with the Cairngorms Wolf Project.”

Anne gives a little thank-you speech that could not be more brown nosing if she tried, then she yields the stage to Evan to explain the situation: that there are now three pens holding a total of fourteen wolves within the Cairngorms National Park and that come the end of winter the wolves will be released from these pens to live freely in the Scottish Highlands. They are here specifically for a rewilding effort in a broader attempt to slow climate change, and on an experimental basis.

“What we have here in Scotland,” Evan says, “is an ecosystem in crisis. We urgently need to rewild. If we can extend woodland cover by a hundred thousand hectares by 2026 then we could dramatically reduce CO2 emissions that contribute to climate change and we could provide habitats for native species. The only way to do this is to control the herbivore population, and the simplest, most effective way to do that is to reintroduce a keystone predator species that was here long before we were. The vital predation element of the ecosystem has been missing in this land for hundreds of years, since wolves were hunted to extinction. Killing the wolves was a massive blunder on our part. Ecosystems need apex predators because they elicit dynamic ecological changes that ripple down the food chain, and these are known as ‘trophic cascades.’ With their return the landscape will change for the better—more habitats for wildlife will be created, soil health increased, flood waters reduced, carbon emissions captured. Animals of all shape and size will return to these lands.”

I look around at the faces I can see; most appear somewhere between pissed off, bored, and plainly confused.

Evan continues. “Deer eat tree and plant shoots so that nothing has a chance to grow. We are overrun with deer. But wolves cull that deer population, and keep it moving, which allows for natural growth of plants and vegetation, which encourages pollinating insects and smaller mammals and rodents to return, which in turn allows the return of birds of prey, and by keeping the fox population in check the wolves also allow medium-sized animals to thrive, such as badgers and beavers. Trees can grow again, creating the air we breathe. When an ecosystem is varied, it is healthy, and everything benefits from a healthy natural ecosystem.”

 

 

A man from the crowd stands. He’s wearing a crisp white shirt and tie and holds his tweed flat cap in his hands. His gray handlebar mustache is a sight to behold, even from my angle. “That’s all well and good for nature,” he says in a deep, resonant voice, “but it’s costing me land I could be grazing sheep on. Agriculture is the third-largest employer in rural Scotland. You threaten that and you threaten the entire community.”

There are a few rumbles of agreement.

“It is unacceptable to me,” he goes on, “that animals could be introduced that would destroy the Highlander way of life. I want to see a thriving, vibrant community that supports its people. To me there’s nothing sadder than a glen with no sheep and no people. People are the lifeblood of any area.”

A whistle, a smattering of applause. I stare at the back of the farmer. This world he describes, empty of wild creatures and places, overrun instead by people and their agriculture, is a dying world.

“We propose that there can be both,” Evan says. “Balance is paramount. I can assure you that societies cope economically with both wolves and farming, we see it all over the world.”

“You’ve done this before,” the farmer says. “You came here and convinced us it was in our best interests to reintroduce the sea eagles. I lived through that and watched those eagles eat the lambs. And now you want to add wolves on top of the eagles? You’ll be the death of farming in the Highlands.”

“There are methods of deterring wolf depredation,” Evan says. “Guard dogs, llamas, donkeys, shepherds. Audio guard boxes emit wolf sounds to scare off any approaching wolves.”

“They tried that in Norway,” the farmer says. “It didn’t work, not completely.”

“They also tried it in America and the results have been excellent. The only reason we’re even attempting this project here is because we have such a strong precedent. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in America has been a staggering success. It’s brought the park back to life, and there have been few negative impacts on the local people and agriculture.”

“Do I need to point out that Scotland is a wee bit smaller than America?” the man asks, which causes a ripple of laughter throughout the hall.

Evan keeps his cool but I can see him growing frustrated. “But it is large enough to sustain this. Look, we have to expect a certain number of off-take by predators—it’s normal! It happens all over the world. But unlike in many places, here you’ll be financially compensated for your losses, which, statistical modeling tells us, are going to be extremely low anyway.”

“And how will you compensate me,” the farmer says, deep and slow, “for the tragedy of watching something I love, something I’ve spent a lifetime breeding, savagely slaughtered?”

“We’re not asking you to watch that,” Evan answers. “If you find a wolf attacking your livestock, you may shoot it.”

There is silence at that. I don’t think they were expecting it.

My eyes are drawn to the side of the auditorium, to where a man is standing by the door, the man I met by the river today but whose name I didn’t learn. He’s not watching Evan or the farmer, but the rest of the crowd of people, his eyes scanning each of their faces. I wonder what he is looking for among us.

“This population of wolves is small and experimental,” Evan explains. “It is protected but up to a point. If you can prove the wolf was attacking your livestock then you’re permitted to shoot it. You are also permitted to report it to us and we have a legal obligation to gather evidence on which wolf has done the predation and to go out and destroy it ourselves. But if you kill one for sport or simply because you’ve spotted it, that’s punishable by fines and jail time.”

“If you think I’m going to let wolves anywhere near my children then you’re sorely mistaken,” a woman calls out, and there are murmurs of agreement. “Will it take one of our kids getting killed before you decide the ‘experiment’ has failed?”

“The chance of a person getting attacked by a wolf is almost nonexistent,” Evan assures them. “This is a shy, family-oriented, gentle creature. We should never have been taught to fear them.”

“That is a lie, sir,” says the farmer. “Predators are feared and hunted because they’re predators they’re dangerous. My ancestors risked their lives to rid this land of those beasts and now you want to dump them back on our doorsteps. Are we expected to keep our children inside?”

Signs wave amid a lifting of angry voices. If Evan ever had control of the room he’s losing it fast.

I stand. “What’s dangerous,” I say, “is the unwarranted spreading of fear.”

The farmer turns to look at me, as do a hundred other faces. Anne’s sigh of exasperation on the stage might be comical at any other time.

“If you truly think wolves are the blood spillers, then you’re blind,” I say. “We do that. We are the people killers, the children killers. We’re the monsters.”

I sit down amid silence. The cold seems to have deepened in the auditorium.

My eyes are drawn to the man by the door. He’s watching me and I realize what he was searching for in the crowd because he seems to have found it in me. A disruption. A threat.

 

Subscribe to Orion Ad
 

Charlotte McConaghy is the author of the novels Migrations, a national bestseller that is being translated into over twenty languages, and Once There Were Wolves. She is based in Sydney, Australia.

Comments

No comments yet.

Submit Your Comments

Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.