Why the wolf is part of our heritage

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller
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The wolf is an indomitable animal, aloof, untamable and in times past represented humankinds struggle against the wilderness as Christianity slowly spread through Europe, replacing what it saw as a feral abyss. Often depicted as evil in folklore and in the church teachings of medieval Europe, there was no place for such a wild beast in the garden of the Lord.

That is why the story of St Edmund and the wolf that guarded his body is such an interesting one, offering a different narrative to the sharp toothed predator of Little Red Riding Hood and one of my favourite childhood books, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Although Hitchcock once said that “nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf and this fright complex is rooted in every individual”, the relationship the townspeople of Bury St Eds have with the wolf is quite different.

A central figure of the legend surrounding the murder of King Edmund, who ruled East Anglia from AD 855 to 869, the wolf stood guard over Edmund’s decapitated head, howling to attract the king’s supporters to its hiding place and allowing them to reunite Edmunds body parts in a Christina burial.

This summer Bury St Edmunds will commemorate this remarkable animal and enduring story with a wolf trail composed of 26 wolves created by local artists. Many of the models are life sized or bigger and recently I met Rosie Brown, a student at West Suffolk College, and her wolf which has been welded from metal. Rosie’s wolf is a repository for memory and myth like all the wolf sculptures; imbued with the predatory, knowingness of the animal: watchful, and loping in gait, a loyal guardian who waits- and if you’ve ever watched wolves parent their young you’ll know what I mean about loyalty and protectiveness. It is supremely hard to capture the spirit and form of a living creature and Rosie has achieved this.

And that’s not all. Recently George Monbiot gave a talk at the Theatre Royal about Rewilding, the reintroduction of creatures and plants lost to us because of what he describes as our biblical doctrine of dominion, one which has destroyed the creature rich world of our ancestors. There are parallels too with the way in which western mythology has demonised the wolf. Once upon a time, the America’s had spiral tusked elephants and beavers the size of black bears and Britain was once a paradise of exotic creatures too: we had wolverine, lynx, bears and wolves. We once had many of the ‘big five’, those hippos, rhinos and elephants that we now travel to Africa to see. They lived here during the last interglacial period until the ice sent them reeling, down, down into Southern Europe to bask in warmer climes. Eventually the southernward creep of the ultimate apex predator, us, drove away all other challengers, pushing them into Africa proper.

When you wander through our local graveyards and woodlands, across the Brecks and over the chases of West Suffolk, you’ll see holly bushes, thick stands of box, tangles of blackthorn and inky dark yew. These are the toughies of the plant world, able to survive the hearty munching and trampling of large vegetarian wild creatures.. Our deciduous trees can also cope , growing strong roots, trunks that can bear breakage and leafy canopies held well clear of the ground. In short, our lovely, bucolic and tamed Suffolk countryside was once adapted to the feeding and breeding of elephants and similar beasts with a mighty reach.

Imagine some of this mesofauna returning to East Anglia with the co-operation and support of local farmers and landowners, politicians and conservationists? Brecklands has seen the successful protection of the stone curlew, birds which might not be as toweringly magnificent (or as potentially deadly) as a wolf but certainly possess prehistoric charm in buckets with their strange yellow eyes, bandy legs and the odd looking offspring only a parent could love. Local farmers manage the pinelines and set aside strips of land which feed and protect the birds. Whilst I accept that elephants and rhinos might be rewilding too far, why not an equivalent set of measures for our St Edmundsbury wolves?