• The Good: A highly localized tour through Britain for wolves
  • The Bad: Highly journalistic; confusing structure
  • The Literary: Some history and mythology; literary quotes at chapter beginnings

Most physical evidence of wolves in Britain is not reliable, but it’s likely that they went extinct in the 1600s. However, many local stories and legends conflict with this. Gow spends much of this book meandering through the countryside, following dead-end leads from one small village to another, looking for any reference to wolves. He scours church bulletins, old club photographs, graveyard stone sculptures, family legends, taxidermized appendages, and more. Several reputed wolf skeletons are scattered throughout northern Britain, but they’re probably just big dogs. While interesting, it’s the other aspects of the book that catch my fancy.

The mythology of wolves looms large in our human brains. Wolves have always been powerful and mysterious creatures, so it’s no surprise that we’ve historically used parts of their bodies for treating ailments, like a wolf forefoot relieving breast pain, a wolf heart curing epilepsy, or even hanging up a wolf head to scare off sorcerers. In the northeast of England, “woof” meant cancer of the stomach, and lumps, knobs, or open sores were also called “wolves”. The thirteenth century Italian physician Rogerius described facial lesions that he thought were reminiscent of a wolf’s bite as lupus, which is why we now refer to the chronic autoimmune disease as Lupus.

Scottish folk tales include many instances of children being taken away to be raised by wolves, and one clan in particular became known as “the race of the wolves”. It’s unclear if any of this is based in truth, but there is mention of the specific wolf child Dina Sanchar, who was caught in 1872 and forced into an orphanage, and who spoke only in grunts and barks for the rest of his short life. This story was apparently Rudyard Kipling’s inspiration for The Jungle Book.

The pastoral symbolism of Christian iconography certainly puts wolves and foxes and other predators outside the bounds of the righteous. The Brothers Grimm use wolves, especially their presence in dark forests, to great effect, and even the Venerable Bede (673-735) mentions wolves in a description of a wild forest in Sussex. Combined with modern concerns about attacks on livestock, modern farmers and ranchers campaign against the reintroduction of wolves.

On a personal note, the author refers often to two captive wolves adopted by the wildlife park in Kent where he worked. Nadia and Mishka were cute but always a little wild, and Gow’s personal relationship with them allows the reader to see these two animals as having distinct personalities and personal agency. These sections add a nice touch.

There’s a few things that are difficult about this book, including some of the history. We’ve punished wolves for a long time. Wolves were viewed as criminals by society throughout the middle ages and often hung from tree limbs. Louis XIII King of France set his dogs against an old wolf for sport, and it was common to cut the hamstrings of a wolf before the fights. In the mid 1800s, a wolf was captured, strung up, it’s paws tied together, and it’s lips sewn shut. Several more instances of wolf torture are within these pages, but I’ll spare you the details.

Unrelated to the content, I find this to be a confusingly arranged book. The structure is sporadic, and there’s no coherent narrative, so it’s quite an unsteady reading experience.

In the end, this is a book that encourages environmental stewardship and conservation and a sense of hope for moving forward. In both the Americas and Europe, many wolf species have been re-introduced to the wild and are doing quite well. In a European report from 2022, nearly seventeen-thousand wolves have reoccupied landscapes in twenty-eight countries from which they were once eradicated. Solutions to protect livestock are increasing too. Since Gow is arguing specifically for the reintroduction of wolves in Britain, he mentions several scientific studies, young environmentalists, even tourism dollars to champion his cause.

Recommended for environmentalists but Brits in general!