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.