Scientists simulating the hypothetical reintroduction of wolves to Scotland have found that large fenced areas would work best for managing red deer numbers.
“Reintroducing the wolf has long been suggested as part of the solution to large red deer populations but there will always be concerns about how wolves interact with people in any rewilding project like this,” says Dr Christopher Sandom from the University of Sussex. “This research shows that they could actually have an extremely beneficial impact in terms of making the rewilding process more effective.”
The fenced areas allow the wolves to achieve the high population densities required to directly reduce the high red deer numbers creating an over-grazing problem in the Scottish Highlands. This method would also help limit encounters with residents, farmers and workers.
The current red deer densities are preventing tree regeneration and ecosystem restoration in parts of Scotland, with more than one third of all native woodlands in an unfavourable condition due to herbivore impacts.
The team’s analyses show that a barrier capable of retaining 75 per cent of dispersing wolves within the reserve would be optimum in allowing for rapid wolf population growth that could lead to reduced deer numbers without the risk of having so many wolves that the red deer population would be threatened.
Sandom adds: “Fences are a common but unpopular tool in biodiversity conservation and would ideally be avoided. But where there are conflicting interests, compromise is needed. A fenced reserve in Scotland could be a fantastic opportunity to return large predators to Britain, ecologically restore a large part of the Scottish Highlands, and promote tourism.”
The authors noted that the reserve would require human management to help mitigate risks such as inbreeding depleting the health of the wolf packs, while the construction of the fence would require very careful management to minimise potential negative impacts on birds in flight and the movement of non-target species.
Read the paper in Restoration Ecology.