How the Irish wolf went to the dogs

OF all the large animals that have become extinct in Ireland the most fascinating is the wolf.

They were once common and feature extensively in myth and folklore. Interestingly they are often portrayed in a positive way as rather benevolent animals with a habit of befriending saints.

They also feature in the Brehon Laws and there is an acknowledgement that they did pose a threat to livestock, if not to humans. If you rented land in Gaelic Ireland you were likely to find that your lease obliged you to keep wolfhounds and to engage in regular wolf hunts on your landlord’s behalf – these might be as frequent as once a week. The laws also contain an interesting reference to the compensation you were obliged to pay for damage done by your tame wolf. The fact that the laws bother mentioning this suggests that wolves were quite common pets at the time.

The Irish tradition mentions wolf attacks on human beings far less often than in most European countries, which is in line with modern zoological research. I only know of one reference. The Annals of Connaught for the year 1420 mention that many people were killed by wolves in that year, possibly as a consequence of a hard winter combined with a famine.

We know quite a bit about the abundance of fur-bearing animals in Ireland in the Middle Ages because the customs authorities kept meticulous records of the export of animal skins and many of these records have survived. In the 1500s between 100 and 300 wolf pelts a year were exported from Ireland to the port of Bristol. Presumably not all the wolves killed ended up as exports, so there must have been a lot of them.

Despite this cull they survived well through the following century, sometimes in unexpected locations. In 1652 a public wolf hunt was organised in Castleknock, now one of the inner suburbs of west Dublin. And in 1698 a Cork alderman made a written complaint about the number of foxes and wolves in and around the city.

But the fate of the wolf in Ireland was sealed in the 1600s and Oliver Cromwell is probably responsible. During the Cromwellian Plantation the first settlers to arrive in the country were horrified to find it full of wolves. The animals had long been extinct in England and Wales, the only British survivors were in remote parts of the Scottish Highlands. So in 1653 the Cromwellian government placed a bounty on them –- £5 for a male wolf and £6 for a female. This was a massive amount of money in those days. Persecuted by bounty hunters and with their forest habitat dwindling, wolves started to decline in numbers.

In 1786 a sheep farmer called John Watson from Ballydarton in Co Carlow began losing stock to a lone wolf that lived on Mount Leinster. He hunted it down with his wolfhounds and killed it. It is the last authenticated record of a wolf in Ireland.

In the 20th century there was considerable debate among experts about the origins of the domestic dog. The geneticists eventually settled the argument by proving all dogs are descended from wolves. The two species inter-breed readily and this seems to happen even more often when wolf populations are severely depleted. Research on Italy’s only remaining wolf pack has shown a high percentage of dog genes in the pack. When cross-breeding like this goes on it makes it harder to declare a species officially extinct. It is possible that some of the genes of the native Irish wolf still live on in our older dog breeds including, rather paradoxically, the Irish wolfhound.


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