Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The last wolf in England

Earlier this year there was a news report that the body of a wolf was found beside a road in Holland.  It was the first time such an animal, outside zoos, had been seen in the Netherlands for approaching 150 years. Commentators suggest the bringing down of the Iron Curtain has led to the wolf leaving its East European habitat and moving westwards. There has also been talk that this magnificent member of the canine family might be re-introduced to the Scottish Highlands to help keep down the Deer population.

Wolves, many years ago, were a creature that had a long presence in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Bones of the animal have been found at a Neolithic rock shelter above Wetton Mill. The Saxon Saint Bertram lost members of his family to a wolf attack near Ilam. Wolfscote Dale on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border indicates that it had a presence in Dovedale. It seems to be the case that wolves represented a serious threat to live stock in the area and during the early medieval period criminals were allowed remittance on their sentence if they killed a number. The Wolf has always had a presence in popular culture for instance in fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood”. A number of English proverbs mention it “A wolf in sheep’s clothing” being a good example. It was also used in personal names in Old Norse Ulfr, in Old English Aethelwulf and Cuthwulf and so it frequently turns up in place names of which Wolstanton (Wulfstan’s tun) is a good local example.

But when was the last wolf in the area killed? Edward I who reigned from 1272 to 1307 ordered the total extermination of all wolves in his kingdom and personally employed one Peter Corbet, with instructions to destroy wolves in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Shropshire where they were more common than in the southern areas of England. In the Peak District wolf keepers were employed to control the vast numbers of wolves which roamed the area. John de Wolfehunt, who died around 1309, was given a dwelling house and land, but everyone was encouraged to trap and kill wolves. Wolf pits were scattered around the moors and woods to trap them. The Wolfehunt family, who resided in Peak Forest, would hunt in March and December and during the dry summers would enter the forest to destroy cubs.

 Their actions over time removed the threat of the wolf and by 1586 William Camden wrote ‘There’s no danger of wolves now in these places, tho’ infested by them heretofore”. There is a tradition that the last wolf in England was killed at Wormhill near Buxton in the 15th century.