He made friends with them!
DUBLIN, TEL AVIV, ROME––As of St. Patrick’s Day 2018, there are still no wild snakes in Ireland, more than 1,660 years after the patron saint of Ireland allegedly drove them all out.
Paleontologists say there were never any wild snakes in Ireland in the first place.
But there were certainly wild wolves in Ireland in Patrick’s time. There are no wild wolves left in Ireland today, either.
Patrick, however, had nothing to do with the loss of wolves. Hagiography––a collective term for the lives of the saints––records that Patrick seems to have enjoyed friendly relations with wolves, despite his history as a shepherd, and might even have pointed the way to coexistence with wolves, had the details of his interactions with them been better documented.
Born in Britania, as the Roman-ruled part of Britain was called, and originally named Maewyn Succat, Patrick at age 16, in the year 403, was captured by slave traders and sold to tend sheep in Dalriada, near Londonderry in what is now the most Protestant part of Northern Ireland.
Patrick reputedly worked his first miracle when he persuaded a wolf to return unharmed a lamb whom the wolf had captured the day before.
Escaping slavery after six years, Patrick turned Catholic and spent the rest of his 76-year lifespan converting Ireland, then largely pagan, to Catholicism.
Turned Welsh king into a wolf
Along the way, Patrick reputedly humbled the exceedingly arrogant Welsh king Veriticus by changing him into a wolf, so that Veriticus might know what it was to be hated and hunted.
Some sources also allege that Patrick turned Irish people who refused to accept Catholicism into werewolves, but that story actually originated with St. Natalis of Ulster, born three years after Patrick’s death.
Culture wars between the Patricks and those who fear wolves as much as werewolves rage on throughout the world known to Patrick, from the Middle East to Scandinavia.
The wolf wars rage across North America as well, reputedly discovered by St. Brendan the Navigator––born 23 years after Patrick’s death––on a seven-year voyage undertaken at some point between 512 and 530 CE to seek the Garden of Eden.
Israel posts bounty on wolves
Much closer to the probable historical inspiration for the Garden of Eden story in the Biblical Book of Genesis, the Israeli minister for agriculture and rural development has posted a reward of 2,000 shekels, worth about $580, “for every wolf that cattle and sheep farmers kill,” reported Zafrir Rinat of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on March 13, 2018.
“The program is being carried out in coordination with the Israel Nature & Parks Authority,” Rinat wrote. “The parks authority said the policy of permitting wolves to be shot to protect agriculture is not new, explaining that it was instituted in 1998 after a large number of wild animals were killed by poison laid by farmers who were trying to put a halt to wolves killing their livestock. The poisoning dealt a blow to vultures in the Golan Heights who had eaten poisoned carcasses.
“The Golan Heights,” Rinat recounted, “is among the regions most densely populated with wolves in the world.”
More than 400 wolves have been killed in the Golan Heights since 2008. Political pressure to kill more wolves escalated after wolves reportedly stalked or actually attacked children in 10 separate apparently predatory incidents in 2017. Adults intervened in each instance before any children were seriously hurt.
Two wolves born near Rome
Rome, Italy, the cultural and economic hub of the western world during St. Patrick’s time, in September 2017 celebrated the birth of two wolf cubs in the Oasi Castel di Guidon wildlife sanctuary, managed by the Lega italiana protezione uccelli (Italian League for the Protection of Birds).
“The nature reserve is located close to the ring road that surrounds Rome,” reported Catherine Edwards for The Local, a digital newspaper serving nine European nations.
“The wolves likely made their way there from the area surrounding Lake Bracciano north of the capital,” Edwards suggested, “which has long had a wolf population.”
As Rome is named after Romulus, who with his twin Remus was reputedly nursed by a wolf after the two were abandoned in infancy, the return of wolves to the vicinity was widely heralded as a positive omen.
But not by all.
St. Francis emulated St. Patrick
“The Italian wolf population dropped to just 100 in the 1960s,” Edwards wrote, “but in 1971 they were declared a protected species and a ban on hunting them has allowed numbers to creep back up to an estimated 1,600. They live predominantly in the mountainous regions of the Appenines and the Alps,” chiefly hunting deer, boar, and smaller mammals, but at times also preying upon livestock.
After years of protest from farmers, some of whom illegally killed wolves in 2014 and dumped the remains in public places, the Italian government in early 2017 first floated and then rescinded a scheme to cull about 5% of the resident wolves.
St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) would have approved, having emulated St. Patrick in persuading a wolf who was killing livestock near the village of Gubbio to quit, circa 1205, in exchange for regular feeding.
Wolves in France
France, meanwhile, after having had no wolves for most of the 20th century, in February 2018 adopted a plan to allow the present population of about 360 wolves to recover to as many as 500 by 2023.
French farmers are, however, allowed to kill up to 10% of the wolf population each year in response to predation.
Wolves in the Alps and the Pyranees reportedly killed nearly 12,000 sheep in 2017––coincidentally about the same number as the total estimated wolf population of Europe west of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and twice as many as the estimated wolf population of the Lower 48 U.S. states, even though western Europe is half as large and has twice the U.S. human population density.
There are now as many as 60 wolf packs in Germany, which had no wolves as recently as 1998. Expanding their range from Germany, wolves in 2017 returned to Denmark, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
“Inevitably, there has been a human backlash,” observed Guardian writer Patrick Barkham in February 2017. Norway, for example, “announced plans to kill 70% of its wolf population of just 68, to protect sheep flocks, before outrage prompted the authorities to backtrack.”
Norway eventually authorized hunters to kill 16 wolves.
Finland, with about 235 resident wolves, has authorized annual wolf hunts since 2014. Finn hunters killed 43 wolves during the winter of 2016-2017.
Wolf return to Ireland unlikely
Yet, while Europe is full of wolves seeking new homes, there are still none in Ireland, and are unlikely to be any soon, since wolves cannot swim all the way to Ireland from continental Europe and since any attempt to reintroduce wolves would meet fierce political opposition.
Paradoxically, National University of Ireland geography lecturer Kieran Hickey argued in Wolves in Ireland (2011), wolves had a formative role in shaping Irish culture.
Hickey assembled practically every scrap of information available in ancient manuscripts and public records to make his case.
Written documentation proved to be surprisingly slim, in view that Ireland has had a literate culture for more than 1,600 years. Altogether, Hickey found just 129 references to wolves between St. Patrick’s time and 1786, when the last Irish wolf was killed.
Yet wolves are remembered in traditional place names in 18 of the 32 Irish counties.
Only a bare dozen Irish historical references to wolves predate the reassertion of British rule that began in 1494, 325 years after the Norman conquest of Ireland and several generations after the Norman links to Britain were weakened by the Black Death.
From 1494, however, to the final extirpation of wolves, British rulers––especially Oliver Cromwell––viewed killing wolves as part and parcel of subjugating Ireland itself.
The Normans bred Irish wolfhounds to hunt wolves, but later British landlords more aggressively used them, and hunted wolves’ prey such as red deer and hares to scarcity too.
Still, wolves might have persisted in Ireland if their forest refuges had not been logged off. Most of Ireland in 1490 remained shrouded in dense oak, pine, and birch. By 1786 little dense forest remained.
Irish wolves made their last stand scavenging human and livestock dead during the famine years of 1739-1741. Rebuilding depleted herds of sheep and cattle, the human survivors soon afterward made short work of any wolves they could find.
With only about 12% of Ireland reforested today, and most of the rest of the countryside used for grazing or cultivation, Hickey doubts that wolves could be reintroduced successfully. About 250 wolves would be needed to ensure a self-sustaining population.
Even at peak, Hickey calculates, the Irish wolf population probably never topped 1,500, and usually ranged between 500 and 1,000, in just a few hundred packs.