For a 100 acre site, this place is hard to find. Heading down a steep track to a remote cottage in a hidden valley somewhere near Wales, we were delighted to see an adult wolf calmly watching us from the other side of a chain link fence, just feet from our vehicle. This was a golden opportunity to see an unusual use of land, which other members might find relevant to their own businesses
We were here to visit CLA member Tony Haighway, the driving force behind Wolf Watch UK, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the rescue, welfare and conservation of displaced wolves from captive situations. To be clear, this is a highly secure sanctuary for wolves who, for various reasons, needed a new home. It is not a rewilding project, but more of that later.
There are no outward signs of the six wolves who currently call this place home. There are no close neighbours, but when the wolves howl it can carry on the wind, causing hillwalkers a couple of miles away to stop for a reality check.
As is often the case, this enterprise began with a chance encounter. In 1985, Tony and a friend visited a zoo only to find it had just closed its doors for the final time. Undeterred they talked their way in, and were horrified to find that two wolves were said to have no financial value and were to be shot. Tony – for reasons unknown to this day – immediately offered to take them, and in a matter of seconds they became worth a few hundred pounds. Still, Tony assumed that he could at least rehome them with a wildlife park, or another zoo. This turned out to be somewhat naïve as he quickly learnt that euthanasia was a management tool in the animal attraction industry at the time. If you wanted more, you bred. If you wanted less, you shot them.
Realising he was stuck with two wolves and had no idea how to look after them, he set about learning – in a time before the internet and the only serious interest in wildlife seemed to be for family favourites or rare species, of which wolves were neither. A visit to the USA helped his knowledge but as he says, “How I never got recycled in those first few weeks was just luck”.
Moving into the middle of sheep farming country with a pack of wolves, probably wasn’t the brightest idea anyone ever had
However, something really resonated and Tony’s passion for the animals led him to consider setting up his own operation.
Once others realised he was serious, contacts at zoos and universities paid off. Tony started attending conferences and meeting like-minded and knowledgeable people as wolves became a huge interest, “a hobby that had grown out of control”.
He asked zoos if they had any interest in rehoming wolves. The response was much greater than he expected. It became obvious that he would need much more land than he had at the time in Warwickshire, so he started looking further afield where prices were more reasonable, and where the land was wilder, less manicured by agriculture and, importantly, with no rights of way. He purchased the house and the initial parcel of land to get started, and four years later managed to borrow enough to purchase the adjoining woodland from a syndicate. As luck would have it, a major storm had saturated the European softwood market with timber, and his offer was accepted. Work immediately started on thinning and fencing to create the basis of the sanctuary we visit today. Tony also joined the CLA to help with advice on how to secure planning permission for the enclosures.
But how was his new venture accepted by the locals? As Tony admitted, “Moving into the middle of sheep farming country with a pack of wolves, probably wasn’t the brightest idea anyone ever had”.
Unsurprisingly, the project generated interest and a little concern among the locals. Now Tony believes he should have done his PR exercise and communication with his new neighbours immediately. In the event it was done retrospectively, but with openness, honesty and humour. (It was Tony himself who spread the rumour about bringing in black bears). He visited neighbours, starting with the ones who he had heard were dead against the scheme and carefully explained his plans. It worked. Locals became genuinely interested and offered to help. Tony has made many lifelong friends, and it could be said that the community are now accepting of their eccentric member, who is now chairman of the parish council!
While the wolves might be a hobby, they still need looking after, and that requires funds. However, it is important to understand that the needs of the wolves come first every time. Wolf Watch UK is a not for profit organisation that was created more so that Tony could share his passion, not to generate an income. After all, this is the man who slept on the kitchen floor as he nurtured two wolf cubs, Madadh and Kgosi, waking every two hours to feed them. He looked after them until they reached 18 and 19 years, two of the oldest wolves in the world. Sadly Madadh died in Tony’s arms last October, less than six months after her lifelong companion Kgosi passed away.
Tony explains further: “We are somewhat unique in our ethos. It is based entirely around the welfare of the animals in our care and to provide them with sanctuary, we refuse to exploit them for monetary gain. We are not a public paying zoo style attraction, but rely solely on membership subscriptions, donations and fundraising from occasional open days, our adopt-a-wolf scheme, photography days and a few guided tours.”
Luckily, Tony can count on the support a number of dedicated volunteers, not least his partner, renowned equestrian artist Eva Dutton. Another staunch supporter is Northamptonshire architect Roger Coy, who has given freely of his time and expertise over many years and is currently working on plans to construct a dual purpose holiday lodge and educational facility on the site of a small wooden building far past its best. The project attracts considerable support from those who come across it. One guest, Will Onions, who stayed at the holiday cottage happened to be the MD of Severn Oak Timber Frames. He was so taken with the project that he immediately donated a complete timber frame, built using 17th century craftsman techniques. This project has a habit of attracting spontaneous and generous support.
Wolves eat on average between 5-12 lbs of food per day, but are capable of going for days without a mealThe wolf pack is one of the most cohesive social organisations in the animal kingdom, with the social rank of each individual reinforced by an elaborate display of body posture, facial expression, movement, intimidation and harassmentWolves are one of the shyest of all animals in the northern wilderness. They have high fear of humans and will walk away, even if you approach one of their killsThe adult grey wolf stands 26-38 inches high at the shoulder, with a head and body length of 40-58 inchesThe weight of a wolf is usually in the 60-100lb range, but can be as much as 175lbsContrary to popular belief, wolves do not howl at the moon
Our visit to Wolf Watch UK could not be complete until we had met the inhabitants. Following a well-practised routine, we were taken by Tony through varying levels of security and, armed only with a couple of dead chickens and some sardines, were brought face to face with two hungry wolves. To see these magnificent creatures at such close range was an honour and generated in us a considerable respect for a genuinely misunderstood animal.
So should we consider re-introducing wolves into the British landscape? “Not in a million years,” replies Tony, the man who knows wolves.
Wolves arouse strong passions. There would inevitably be huge opposition to any proposal to introduce wolves into the wild.
This article was first published in Land & Business Magazine, September 2018