“The Last Wolf in England” in Fortean Times #375

I’m very pleased to be back in the pages of Fortean Times – the first place I was ever published, back in 2004 – with an article entitled “The Last Wolf in England“.

The month which we now call January our Saxon ancestors called wolf-monat, to wit, wolf-month, because people are wont always in that month to be in more danger to be devoured of wolves, than in any else season of the year; for that, through the extremity of cold and snow, these ravenous creatures could not find of other beasts sufficient to feed upon.

So wrote the antiquary Richard Verstegan in his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities, published in 1673. The official wolf hunting season in Britain once ran between late December and late March, but by all accounts the beasts were more-often-than-not killed whenever the opportunity arose. Indeed, wolves seem to have been hunted in the British Isles for as long as they and humans co-existed, but exactly when that period came to an end is a matter of some debate.

Legend has it that the last Welsh wolf was killed near a place called Coed y Bleiddiau (“Wood of the Wolves”), close to the village of Maentwrog in Snowdonia National Park, in the early decades of the 16th century. The last wolf in Scotland is recorded as having been killed nearly two-hundred years later in 1680 by the Highland Chief Sir Ewan Cameron of Lochiel in a gorge near the village of Killiecrankie. A stuffed and mounted specimen purported to be this very wolf was sold at auction in 1818, but seems more likely to have actually been a tamed canid which belonged to the English collector Sir Ashton Lever (1729 – 1788).

Scottish folklore, states that the legendary Highland deer stalker MacQueen of Pall a’ Chrocain actually slew the last Scots wolf in Tarnaway Forest in Morayshire in 1743. The story goes that MacQueen was sent for by the Laird of Macintosh to help track a “black beast” which had attacked and killed two children. A gathering of men, including the Laird, awaited MacQueen’s arrival the following morning, eager to discuss details and set out to put an end the murderous creature. When MacQueen arrived late he was asked what had caused his delay. He responded by throwing the bloody, severed head of a black wolf into the centre of the gathering.

Across the sea in Ireland the last official record of a wolf being killed dates from 1786 in County Carlow, Leinster, in the South East of the country. Charles Fort recorded in Lo! however, that in 1874 sheep were being killed on an almost nightly basis in and around Cavan, on the Border Region of the Republic of Ireland. These attacks lasted for four months and the way in which the animals were killed – their throats torn out – led many to assert that a wolf was responsible. We are told that Archdeacon Magenniss eventually shot the beast at Lismoreville (a place I can find no other record of) in April of the year, and that it was found to be nothing but a large dog gone feral. Fort found this a rather neat yet unsatisfactory conclusion to the tale of the last wolf in Ireland, as I must admit do I.

What then of the last of the English wolves?

You can read the full article in FT375, available everywhere they sell magazines and via subscribe.forteantimes.com

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