Many years ago I was walking through a Canadian forest, heading for an ice climb, not too far from the town of Banff. I was alone, with my companion a few hundred yards behind me. There were a few inches of fresh snow on the ground and the forest was a silent place. I stepped into a clearing and suddenly realised I was no longer alone. A young mountain lion had entered the small sunlit area at the same moment as me. We both froze, uncertain of what was about to happen. The creature paused for a moment, looked at me, decided I was no threat and strolled casually away. The whole encounter only lasted a few seconds, yet it left a profound in impression on me.
Barry Lopez, in his wonderful book Arctic Dreams, talks about the awe he experiences in looking into the eyes of a wild animal in the wilderness. Lopez advocates bowing to the animal as a way of showing mutual respect. I didn’t have time to bow, to be afraid, to panic or to run. I just felt a sense of calm, as if such meetings were meant to be. It was as though the cat and I had met unexpectedly at a party and didn’t know what to say to each other. The lion should have heard me, perhaps she was zoned out at the time and thinking of prey to come. Either way I think we both felt slightly embarrassed, a climber isn’t supposed to almost fall over a number one predator. This was a young animal, nothing like fully grown and I suspect a similar encounter with a grizzly bear might have provoked different sentiments in me.
It is a pity that the Scottish Highlands are bereft of their top predators largely through man’s fear and ignorance. Now and again a few brave souls suggest returning the wolf to our shores only to be howled down by folk whose images of the creature were largely formed by Hammer Horror films. I read of one study that spoke about the effects of reintroducing the wolf in Yellowstone national park. The major effect of this, unsurprisingly, was to make the deer nervous. Not something, you might think, that would have a huge impact on the landscape. Strangely, however, that is exactly what it did. Nervous deer don’t spend so much time grazing in open areas and woodlands are able to regenerate providing a much more varied habitat for a range of creatures.
There is space for all of us in the Highlands and I for one, would be delighted to hear the howl of a distant wolf whilst urinating in the moonlight beside a bothy. (That’s me urinating, not the wolf.) There are far too many Red Deer in Scotland’s hills with the population ever increasing making the reforestation of the Highlands almost impossible with so many grazing animals. Admittedly you might get a few nervous hill walkers walking about if there was a possibility of bumping into a pack wild wolves as you stumbled late off the hill. A small price to pay for sharing such a wilderness.
Oddly I did speak to the Highland’s top predator this week. I contacted a ghillie on a Highland estate and asked about hill walking there in October during the stalking season. He couldn’t have been more helpful and encouraged me to come provided kept to the better known routes. This just proves predators and hill walkers can share the mountains in Scotland, all it takes is a bit of mutual respect. Bring back the wolf, just don’t tell the deer.
P.S. If I get taken out by a stray bullet in the hills in October all the above is null and void.
For a serious look at bringing back the wolf check out this link. I think it makes a lot of sense