Our wild weekend this time was Walking with Wolves. In deepest, darkest Berkshire. Not usually the sort of place you anticipate hearing the eerie howls of Canis Lupus, baying lustily to the moon before setting out in a throat-tearing pack to dismember unsuspecting victims.
There was certainly nothing eerie about the bright Saturday morning, the M4 and the impressive real estate around Beenham. The only thing that struck fear into our hearts was the behaviour of two lorry drivers on the A420.
We parked our chariot in a long line, having been moved along for taking up the place where the wolves were to be unloaded. Having been treated to a long discourse from a fellow wolf-walker about his collection of chinchillas and rare rodents, a horse box drew up to the unloading place and was not moved on. Our vulpine friends had arrived.
Wolves are very misunderstood. Like sharks, they are the stuff of horror movies or thrillers, portrayed as bloodthirsty killers with a penchant not only to seek out human prey but prepared to go to absurd lengths in pursuit of human flesh. You hear of the Big Bad Wolf, keeping the Wolf from the door and on nights where there is a full moon, you fear Werewolves. Yet the truth is that these are shy creatures who have learned to avoid man. We were told in our briefing that there is actually no record of a healthy wolf ever attacking a person!
That is not to say that a wolf does not pack a punch! Once one of the most successful and widespread carnivores on earth, they are efficient predators and have some considerable weaponry on board. When Little Red Riding Hood said “My, what big teeth you’ve got” she was not kidding. The jaws of a pit bull are several times more powerful than the jaws of other breeds of domestic dog. A wolf has a bite considerably more powerful even than a pit bull. Its jaws and dentition are designed to snap and splinter large bones and Wee Wolfie is not afraid to take on prey as large as buffalo.
So it was with this knowledge that I anticipated my first meeting with the inhabitants of the horsebox, with its understated sign declaring “Wolves in Transit. KEEP OUT.”
There was a scuffle of excitement and anticipation within the horse box as it halted and my first glimpse was of a beautiful face which appeared, looking over the door through the wire mesh at the rear. A soft and familiar, furry canine face, somewhat like that of a German Shepherd, but with clear, piercing, amber eyes that looked straight through me.
We were taken to the woods to await our guests and were given a briefing on safe and appropriate body language. “Do not crouch to stroke a wolf and do not pat their heads. Keep the hand nearest the tooth end raised by your face as you stroke the wolf with the other hand so that you can push her away if she lunges.”
We were told to keep close control of cameras and other personal belongings. If a wolf took them, the handlers made it clear that they were not prepared to try to get them back! We were meeting ‘socialised’, not ‘domesticated’ wolves. Domestic dogs, the wolves in our living rooms, have been man’s best friend for 40,000 years. (In contrast, cats have been domesticated for only 10,000 years.) 40,000 years is a very long marriage, which has involved a lot of selective breeding as well as learning how to live together!
These wolves were used to people but were still essentially wild animals. All of their natural predatory instincts, evolved over millennia, were bubbling away just below the cuddly, canine exterior.
We watched in excited anticipation as the five wolves were led through the woods to where we waited. Duma, a young female American timber wolf seemed as anxious to meet us as we were to meet her. She dragged her handler apace, snaking through the gathered crowd, affectionately licking the sea of fists outstretched for her to sniff by way of introduction.
We commenced our walk with three, grey, long-legged and rangy American timber wolves and two of their stockier, brown European cousins. We stopped frequently in shady spots to allow the gathered human company to bond individually with the wolves. A hard rub underneath their bellies seemed to generate a blissful, semi-conscious state which cemented the friendship.
It was wonderful watching the wolves loping easily through the trees, stopping occasionally to roll themselves in patches of leaf mould. This is natural behaviour which they adopt to mask their scent from prey. Seeing their shapes in the shadows, I felt transported in time. A wild wolf has not roamed in the dappled sunlight of an English forest since the end of the 13th Century.
We chatted with the handlers, all members of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, which was set up in 1995 to dispel myths about wolves and enhance understanding of these beautiful animals. We learned about wolf society. How they form deep bonds of friendship and how they co-operate with each other for the benefit of the pack. Loyalty and co-operation; these are exactly the traits which led to wolves becoming man’s best friend. More than once, we were told that people could learn a lot from wolves!
It is hard to describe the feeling of being close to a wild creature and the privilege of being accepted into its world. The wolf was revered as a spiritual guide by Native Americans and I can well understand their admiration of this aloof and graceful, but efficient hunter. The young female timber wolves were particularly affectionate and it was deeply rewarding to be able to touch and stroke them and to see them positively enjoy and revel in the attention of their human guests.
If you too would like to meet and learn about these beautiful animals, you can take part in wolf experiences at venues around the UK. Here are some contact details;
The UK Wolf Conservation Trust, Reading, Berkshire (West of London) continues its work but no longer offers wolf experiences
Paradise Wildlife Park, Broxbourne Hertfordshire (North of London) click here
Predator Experience, Grange over Sands, Cumbria (near the Lake District) click here
Wolf Watch, Wales/Shropshire Border, click here