Bears and wolves once roamed all over Ireland. Now they’re back. Wild Ireland, a wildlife reserve with a difference, is re-introducing us to the animals our ancestors knew.
For Killian McLaughlin, the man behind this fantastic venture, Wild Ireland has been a long time in the planning. Growing up in Buncrana, he rescued many animals, and gained such a reputation that local people who found injured animals brought them to him. Killian noticed that people were just as interested in native animals as they were in the more exotic ones. And so, the seed of an idea began to germinate in his head.
Killian acquired some land on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal six years ago. Since then, he has worked hard to turn his dream into a reality. He self-funded much of the project and, when he wasn’t busy with his day job as a solicitor, spent his time draining the land and transforming it into a wildlife reserve.
In keeping with the theme of his youth, Killian rescued most of Wild Ireland’s animals, travelling far and wide to source them. There are brown bears, wolves, red deer, a lynx and five monkeys, with plans to introduce wild boar very soon. Killian has made the animals’ enclosures as big as possible for now, but he plans to extend them in time.
Killian has been blown away by the public reaction to Wild Ireland. Since opening last October, it has attracted visitors from all over the country, and is soon to be the subject of a documentary made by Moondance Productions. The reserve, and particularly the wolves, have “really sparked something in people’s imaginations”.
Perhaps there is something of an ancestral memory at play. Killian explains Irish people held wolves in high regard for hundreds of years. Even their Irish name suggests a special position in Irish society – it is mac tíre (son of the land). There are lots of other Irish words for wolves, too, and many place names that reference wolves, indicating just how important these amazing animals were to our ancestors.
Surprisingly, wolves have only been extinct in Ireland since the 18th Century. The last killing is thought to have occurred in 1786 in Co Carlow. Killian explains that Cromwell put a bounty on our wolves, offering £6 for a female and £5 for a male. However, the Irish wouldn’t kill the wolves, even for such a princely sum, and hunters came from abroad to do the job instead.
There are three European wolves now living at the reserve. Born in a zoo, their mother wasn’t caring for them, so Killian brought them to Wild Ireland and bottlefed them. They have now accepted him as a member of their pack and even call for him at night, their howls echoing eerily through the night air.
Killian says he would love to see wolves re-introduced to Ireland, but he doesn’t think it will happen anytime soon. Despite their bad PR, they are very good for the surrounding environment, as their re-introduction at Yellowstone Park has shown. However, wolves need a lot of space – Yellowstone Park, which covers 2.2 million acres, supports just sixty wolves. Killian suggests that a wildlife corridor running through Ireland, connecting national parks together, might provide enough space, although it would require significant effort and public support.
Ireland’s bears were extinct long before our wolves. The latest bear fossil found in Ireland is about 1,500 to 2,000 years old, but according to Killian, it’s possible that bears lived in Ireland for some time after that. He explains that bear fossils have been found in many caves across the country where the animals would have hibernated, including at the famous Aillwee Caves in Co Clare.
Wild Ireland’s three bears started life in a tiny concreted space in Lithuania. Traumatised by their living conditions, they displayed some negative behaviours when they arrived at the reserve. They paced around a lot, and one of the bears is agoraphobic.
Settling the bears into their new home has been a slow process, but thankfully, they seem a lot happier now. Environmental enrichment is important at Wild Ireland, and in keeping with this philosophy, the bears must work for their food just as they would in the wild. Staff at the reserve hide the bears’ food so that the animals spend most of their day searching for it. This distracts them and gives them a sense of purpose.
It’s not all about the bears and wolves at Wild Ireland, captivating though they are. The reserve is also home to a lynx, five Barbary Macaque monkeys, swans, red deer, and many wild animals and birds. The monkeys are the only animal at the reserve not native to Ireland. However, they are native to Europe and have no problem with the Irish weather, according to Killian.
The macaques were born in the wild, but their mothers were shot by poachers when they were babies. They were mistreated, and displayed some behavioural problems. However, like the bears, they are slowly improving as they adapt to their island home on the reserve’s lake. When they first arrived at Wild Ireland, they didn’t even know how to climb trees. At first, there were many broken branches because the monkeys didn’t realise that thinner branches wouldn’t support their weight.
Killian has planted over 1,000 native trees on the reserve. He aims to return the landscape to the condition it was in thousands of years ago. Ireland was once almost completely covered in forests. Killian points out that temperate rainforests, like those that once existed here, are one of the world’s rarest habitats. As such, they are an important habitat for lots of different wildlife.
Walking around the reserve at night is an amazing experience, according to Killian. He describes how the hairs stand up on his neck as he hears the sounds our ancestors would have known . And, he says, if he shines a torch out into the darkness, he sees lots of pairs of eyes peering back at him.