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The Hunt

The month which we now call January our Saxon ancestors called wolf-monat, to wit, wolf-month, because people are wont always in that month to be in more danger to be devoured of wolves, than in any else season of the year; for that, through the extremity of cold and snow, these ravenous creatures could not find of other beasts sufficient to feed upon.

So wrote the antiquary Richard Verstegan in his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities, published in 1673. The official wolf hunting season in Britain once ran between late December and late March, but by all accounts the beasts were more-often-than-not killed whenever the opportunity arose. Indeed, wolves seem to have been hunted in the British Isles for as long as they and humans co-existed, but exactly when that period came to an end is a matter of some debate.

Legend has it that the last Welsh wolf was killed near a place called Coed y Bleiddiau (“Wood of the Wolves”), close to the village of Maentwrog in Snowdonia National Park, in the early decades of the 16th century. The last wolf in Scotland is recorded as having been killed nearly two-hundred years later in 1680 by the Highland Chief Sir Ewan Cameron of Lochiel in a gorge near the village of Killiecrankie. A stuffed and mounted specimen purported to be this very wolf was sold at auction in 1818, but seems more likely to have actually been a tamed canid which belonged to the English collector Sir Ashton Lever (1729 – 1788). Scottish folklore, states that the legendary Highland deer stalker MacQueen of Pall a’ Chrocain actually slew the last Scots wolf in Tarnaway Forest in Morayshire in 1743. The story goes that MacQueen was sent for by the Laird of Macintosh to help track a “black beast” which had attacked and killed two children. A gathering of men, including the Laird, awaited MacQueen’s arrival the following morning, eager to discuss details and set out to put an end the murderous creature. When MacQueen arrived late he was asked what had caused his delay. He responded by throwing the bloody, severed head of a black wolf into the centre of the gathering.

Across the sea in Ireland the last official record of a wolf being killed dates from 1786 in County Carlow, Leinster, in the South East of the country. Charles Fort recorded in Lo! however, that in 1874 sheep were being killed on an almost nightly basis in and around Cavan, on the Border Region of the Republic of Ireland. These attacks lasted for four months and the way in which the animals were killed – their throats torn out – led many to assert that a wolf was responsible. We are told that Archdeacon Magenniss eventually shot the beast at Lismoreville (a place I can find no other record of) in April of the year, and that it was found to be nothing but a large dog gone feral. Fort found this a rather neat yet unsatisfactory conclusion to the tale of the last wolf in Ireland, as I must admit do I. What then of the last of the English wolves?

Old English Wolves

In volume two of his 1865 work Popular Romances of the West of England,the scientist and antiquarian Robert Hunt recorded the following:

The extirpation of the wolves, which once existed in every part of these islands, is an oft-told story.

But it is not generally known that the last native wolf lived in the forests of Ludgvan, near Penzance. The last of his race was a gigantic specimen, and terrible was the havoc made by him on the flocks. Tradition tells us that at last he carried off a child. This could not be endured, so the peasantry all turned out, and this famous wolf was captured at Rospeith, the name of a farm still existing in Ludgvan.

Ludgvan is in Cornwall, the most South Westerly county in England, bordered to the north and west by the Celtic Sea, and to the south by the English Channel. No date is given for the death of this particular last English wolf, but not to worry there are a few others. Quite a few. In the village of Wormhill in Derbyshire stands Wormhill Hall, built in 1697. Local legend says that the site of the hall marks the spot where the last wolf in England was slain (at some unspecified point) during the 15th century. Humphrey Head is a limestone outcrop situated between the villages of Allithwaite and Flookburgh in modern day Cumbria. Here, it is said, the last wolf in England was killed by the son of notorious wolf-hater (so the story goes) Sir Edgar Harrington after a long pursuit along the shore. Again this tale takes place “some time” in the 15th century. Stittenham Wood in North Yorkshire is another candidate, as is Wolfscrag, West Chiltington, Sussex, although its name and those of the nearby Great Den, Little Den, and Far Den fields are thought by many to be the source rather than the result of the tale. Writing in 1801, the antiquary Joseph Strutt gave the following summation of the likely era of the English wolf’s demise:

It seems most probable that wolves became extinct in England during the reign of Henry VII or at all events they were exceedingly rare after that reign. The Lancashire forests of Blackburnshire and Bowland the wilder parts of the Derbyshire Peak and the wolds of Yorkshire were among the last retreats of the wolf. It has been confidently stated that entries of payments for the destruction of wolves in the account books of certain parishes of the East Riding presumably of the sixteenth or seventeenth century date are still extant, but this appears to be an error.

Nevertheless wolves have been sighted, and even killed, in the fields and forests of England long after Henry VII was dead and buried.

The Allendale Wolf, and other Alleged Escapees

Returning to Lo!, we find a story from 1904 where sheep were being slain nightly in Hexhamshire, Northumberland, in the North East of the country. That December local newspaper the Hexham Courant bore the headline “Wolf at large in Allendale”. A four and a half month old wolf, belonging to Captain Bains of Shotley Bridge, about 15 miles (24 km) away from the town of Hexham, had escaped in October and was believed to be the animal responsible. Locals formed the Hexham Wolf Committee, offering a reward for killing the animal, and hunting for it themselves in mobs of up to two-hundred, armed with guns. The committee utilised hunting dogs, even a specially brought in bloodhound called Monarch, and a “skilled Indian Game Hunter” named Mr W. Briddick. The wolf was sighted on a number of occasions and though many of the reports seemed contradictory, they agreed that this was a large and formidable beast.

By this time the story had been taken up by the London newspapers and become something of a sensation. The attacks on livestock continued throughout December but the wolf could simply not be caught. Then in January 1905 the body of a wolf was found on a railway line in Cumwinton, Cumbria, 30 miles (48 km) west of Hexhamshire. Captain Bains was summoned to the scene but immediately stated that the corpse was not that of the young wolf he had lost. The Hexham Courant reported on the 7th of January that the wolf found at Cumwinton was not the Wolf of Allendale and that the beast was still at large. The conclusion drawn by many was that there must be a whole pack of wolves roaming the region. On the 21st of January the newspaper reported that the destruction of livestock was still taking place. A wolf had been seen once again by several witnesses including a postman and the Hexham Wolf Committee continued their hunts. No second wolf was ever captured or killed however, and soon the sightings and attacks petered out.

Captive wolves are still escaping into the wild, even in the 21st century. In 2009 a wolf chewed through the metal fence of its enclosure at Combe Martin Wildlife Park, Devon only to be recaptured roaming the perimeter soon after. In November 2013 a pack of five wolves escaped from Colchester Zoo in Essex, again by gnawing through a metal fence. One of the wolves returned to the enclosure of its own volition and a second was successfully tranquillised, but the remaining three escaped the zoo completely. Two were shot dead within hours, but the third remained on the loose for nine hours. Locals were told to keep children indoors as armed police searched the nearby countryside for the animal which was eventually also shot and killed. Just like the Wolf of Allendale before them however, there are other beasts out there in England’s green and pleasant lands whose origins remain far more mysterious than these unfortunate escapees.

The Beast(s) of Cannock Chase

Cannock Chase is an area of countryside and dense woodland in Staffordshire, West Midlands and is reportedly home to a wolf, or “wolf like creature”. On the 10th of February 2010 The Birmingham Mail ran a story headlined “Further sighting of mysterious Cannock Chase Wolf”:

Sightings of a wolf-like creature over Cannock Chase have continued to flood in, with eyewitnesses claiming to have seen the fabled beast near to Huntington woodland.

Mark Sutton, walking in the area, was reported as saying:

“I was walking my dog near to Broadhurst Green and I believe I saw something that could be described as a wolf. It was not a panther and it was too large to be a dog. It was walking through the bushes without a care in the world.”

Another local, Peter Derbyshire, also gave an account of a recent sighting:

“I was driving through the trees in the direction of Stafford when I saw something dark moving amongst the bushes on the right hand side of the car. […] It was definitely not a cat, it had more of a dog’s characteristics. It had a long nose and sharp, pointy ears.”

The reason both witnesses mention big cats is that the Cannock Chase Wolf was formerly the Cannock Chase Panther AKA the Cannock Chase Beast. Indeed, Black Dogs, Alien Big Cats, UFOs, Black Eyed Children, Slenderman himself, and many more have all been spotted in and around Cannock Chase, which is considered something of a paranormal hotspot. The fact that both men described the creature as wolf-like rather than actually a wolf may also be to do with the 1975 sightings of a wolf in the area which, when startled, is said to have risen up on its hind legs before running away on two feet rather than four. Are the Cannock Chase Panther, the Cannock Chase Were-Wolf and the Cannock Chase Wolf the same creature? Certainly it might go some way towards easing the supernatural overcrowding in the area. Hexham too, it should be noted, has also had its fair share of extra-lupine weirdness.

The Curse of the Hexham Were-wolf

In 1971 brothers Colin and Leslie Robson were digging in the back garden of their home in the village, some ten minutes walk away from the woods where the Allendale Wolf once roamed. The boys found a pair of small stone heads, each about 6cm high, buried in the earth. After taking the heads into their home the Robinson family reported strange phenomena – poltergeist-like activity and the heads themselves shifting from one location to another. The Hexham Heads became a media sensation. No one could agree how old they were or even exactly what they were, despite thorough examinations by numerous experts, but the general consensus (in the press at least) was that they were almost certainly cursed.

One of the experts who examined the heads was Dr. Anne Ross, a Celtic scholar best known for her books The Pagan Celts and Pagan Celtic Britain. While in possession of the heads Dr. Ross, who believed them to be Celtic ritual objects, was visited in her Southampton home by a strange creature which was also seen by her daughter Berenice. The being was described as being half man, half wolf. All this came to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion when a man by the name of Desmond Craigie, who had lived in the house in Hexham prior to the Robinsons, came forward and said that he had made the heads himself for his daughter to play with during the 1950s. He ever went so far as to create other heads to demonstrate the technique, though some remained stubbornly unconvinced.

Rewilding the UK

Escaped zoo animals and shape-shifting supernatural entities notwithstanding then, is there really any chance of our seeing wolves in the wild in Great Britain ever again? Some say it is possible. Rewilding Britain is a charity organisation set up in 2015, their online About Us page says:

We believe rewilding provides hope for the future for people and nature. Through rewilding we can start to reverse centuries of ecological damage. We can re-establish natural processes, reconnect with nature and regain wonder for the natural world.

The list of fauna which Rewilding Britain proposes reintroducing includes beaver, wild boar, elk, bison, lynx, and, yes, wolf.

Wolves live in a huge range of habitats and human population densities. They present a very low risk to people. Wolves have re-established themselves across most countries in Europe. They are a tourist draw despite being shy creatures that avoid people where possible. They suffer from many centuries of demonisation and mythmaking. No reintroduction would be attempted without widespread public consent and enthusiasm.

The Wolves and Humans Foundation is another UK based charity organisation, officially registered in 2013. The foundation works towards the conservation of wolves (and other species) across Europe but, like Rewilding Britain, are also campaigning for the reintroduction of wolves, specifically in Scotland.

Reintroducing the wolf to the Scottish Highlands was first proposed in the late 1960s, but the idea only started to gain wider publicity and support following the reintroductions of the red wolf to the south-eastern United States in 1989, and the grey wolf to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

The Highlands are now widely considered to be the only place in the British Isles where wolves might practically be reintroduced. Primarily wolf packs would serve as a means of managing the red deer population (which is currently kept in check with culling) with secondary benefits including natural reforestation as a result of decreased deer numbers and increased movement of the herds, and increased tourism. There are still many obstacles to be overcome however, not least of all the fact that the “widespread public consent and enthusiasm” Rewilding Britain talk about being necessary has not been entirely forthcoming. The National Farmers Union for Scotland have said they are wholly opposed to the reintroduction, and residents of the Scottish countryside surveyed have generally not shown much enthusiasm for the idea (scoring an average of +2 on a scale of -18 to +18). Even those in favour of the reintroduction, including leading British broadcasters and naturalists Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham, acknowledge that there is a fair way to go before it could ever be realised.

Of Wolf and Man

Wolves were once the apex predator in Great Britain, posing a direct threat to the lives of our ancestors. They became the archetypal enemy, yet at the same time they were viewed as our equals. Their strength, their cunning, their sheer power was admired, coveted even, just as much as it was feared. Legend says that when Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia and first patron saint of England, was murdered by Northlanders in the 9th century, a great wolf guarded his severed head until it could be found and reunited with his body. Wolves represent something primal, something primitive, but also something pure. There is an argument that there is great collective guilt for the eradication of the wolf from the British Isles; that on some level we still feel the loss of that singular species which kept pace with our own for so many millennia. Their ghosts still haunt our unconscious minds and we see them – sometimes as wolves, sometimes Black Dogs, or werewolves – running through the shadows of what remains of the wilderness.

In truth though the last wolf in England never died, we did something much more human to it than that, something which began some fifteen-thousand years ago. We remoulded the wolf into our own image; we took the wild primal beast of the forest and we fed it, we tamed it, we gave it a name. Five centuries after the last wolf in England was supposedly slain, its pocket-sized, flat-nosed, bug-eyed ancestors peer out from handbags, or squat awkwardly on bare concrete while their attached humans stand dutifully by, plastic bag in hand. Grey wolves – real wolves – still roam the forests and plains of vast swathes of Europe, Asia, and North America: powerful, intelligent, social animals, hunting, living and travelling in packs made up of their own families, just as humans did before we discovered farming eleven-thousand years or so ago. Perhaps then, if our conscience is what is motivating us in attempting to reintroduce the wolf to this island, it is not so much the guilt of having eradicated them, but for what we have become in their absence.

[Article originally published in Fortean Times magazine #375, January 2019]

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