The history of wolves in the UK

Our natural history is one of dramatic transformation and change, not least in terms of the animals and wildlife that reside here. In the UK of today we are accustomed to living amongst species which largely do not pose a threat or instil fear (except for perhaps the odd report of a wild cat). In the past the danger of wild animals and in particular large predators whether real or perceived was more pervasive. Routes were worn into the landscape which reflected this, different habitats posed different threats, mass hunts and killings were common and stories and myths were created and passed on.

The wolf is a species that was historically endemic to the UK; it is thought that they arrived at the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Packs of wolves crossed the land bridge from Europe following the migrating herds of deer, elk, boar and other grazing animals and proliferated throughout the UK. A widespread population of wolves became an established part of the ecosystem as top level predators and numbers were high into the early medieval period. Wolf bones have been discovered in many excavations. The Helsfell wolf, a complete wolf skeleton excavated near Kendal and exhibited in Kendal Museum, has been dated to the 12th century.

Probably one of the earliest references to wolves can be found in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript at the British Museum. A genealogy of dynasties records the East Anglian founder of a dynasty called “Wuffa” and his tribe, who were known as “Wuffings” (Wolf people). These genealogies were written in A.D. 800 and Wuffa is thought to have ruled about 575 A.D.

At around 1000 A.D  the UK wolf population started to dwindle, eventuially into extinction. Wolves were exterminated mainly through a combination of habitat removal (deforestation) and trapping and hunting. Wolves were considered a danger to people and a threat to livestock and their existence was at odds with expanding animal farming landscapes.

Historical accounts from as early as 1,000 years ago mention wolf hunting as a way to pay tribute to kings and nobles. Servants to the kings could be granted land on the condition that they rid the land of wolves. Norman kings (reigning from 1066 to 1152 A.D.) employed servants as wolf hunters. Wolf-hunting parties were often organized by kings and nobility and in 1281, Edward I ordered the extermination of all wolves in England. Coppicing by landholders was encouraged as it was said to deter wolves.  Woodland  around Morecambe Bay was coppiced partly for this reason. There are also records of woods being burnt to the ground to deter wolves.

The campaign against wolves by Edward I and subsequent nobility was devastating to the wolf population and references to them diminished. By the late medieval period they were very rare and It is generally accepted that wolves were extinct in England by the 15th century. They went on to survive longer in Scotland- official records indicate that the last Scottish wolf was killed by Sir Ewen Cameron in 1680 in Killiecrankie (Perthshire) but there are reports that wolves survived in Scotland up until the 18th century.

The last wolf in England

It is not known for certain where and when the last wolf of England finally died and there are various stories and claims from around the country. Wolves have an affiliation with South Cumbria; local legend claims the last wolf of England lived in the South Fells and met it’s end on Humphrey Head, Cumbria (then Lancashire) in the 14th Century, killed by John Harrington of nearby Wraysholme Tower. The event is recorded in later accounts – ‘The Last Wolf’ 1496 by Edward Postlethwaite*

Now woe the wolf betide!
For never ran so true a pack,

Edward Postlethwaite 1496

The tale was told by the Lancashire poet and author Edwin Waugh in his “Rambles in the Lake Country and its Borders” (1861) and the story ‘The Last Wolf- A Story of England in the Fourteenth Century by Mrs Jerome Mercier (1906). This story transports its readers back to the 14th century when the Morecambe Bay sands were a highway for travellers and raiders from the North.

Sir Edgar Harrington of nearby Wraysholm Tower had sworn to hunt out and kill every last wolf from his lands around Cartmel forest. He also issued a promise that the man who killed the last wolf would receive the hand in marriage to his niece. The story described the chase across the forest down past Windermere, south to the bay. The wolf was finally speared to death on Humphrey head by an unknown knight who then revealed himself as John Harrington, long-lost son of Sir Edgar who had been presumed dead in battle. Sir Edgar is supposed to have said: “And here is our old grey enemy, the last wolf in England, stone dead”. A monk passing by the holy well at Humphrey head married the couple in a cave at Humphrey Head now known as Sir Edgar’s Chapel.

The couple used the image of a wolf in their crest and are buried together in Cartmel Priory- their effigies are cut in the stone tomb with a wolf at their feet. As a celebration of this story the Priory still has a weather vane in the shape of a wolf’s head.

Wolf weathervane on Cartmel Priory

After the Crusades he
killed the last wolf in England.
“One infidel is as good as another”.

in romantic paradise
wilderness was anaesthetized.

Children acquired Wordsworth goggles
lest blackthorns scrape their eyes,
while Nature was reduced
to television size.

Yet ghost prints are on our lawn
and wilderness is in the wood,
lurking in coughing fits of blood.

John Fox

The Wolf in folklore

The wolf has a wider impact beyond natural history and is an integral part of our cultural landscape. Folklore is a way of communicating real, embellished and fantastic information about the natural world.

The wolf has been associated with both positive and negative traits- often revered as brave, courageous and loyal and perhaps more frequently labelled with darker characteristics, evil and sin. The native American Pawnee, themselves nicknamed the “Wolf People” call the Milky Way, the “Wolf Road.” Meanwhile the character of the ‘big bad wolf’ is a threatening menace in several cautionary European tales.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some correlation with the context of the societies that these associations have emerged from – with nomadic and hunting societies often revering the wolf as a symbol of strength and guidance and agrarian societies  fearing the wolf as a sinister symbol of death, lust or destruction. This is also connected to Christianity- the Bible contains thirteen references to wolves, usually as metaphors for greed and destructiveness.

The werewolf is a widespread concept in European folklore developed during medieval times and there is even a specific term describing a human ability to transform oneself into a wolf and to the act of so doing- lycanthropy (from λύκος lúkos “wolf” and ἄνθρωπος, ánthrōpos “human”)

*source: ‘Annals of Cartmel’ 1872 by James Stockdale