| Wolf walking in Cumbria: the new leaders of the pack|
|"A i oow oow ooo ooo!" The back-to-pack wolf cry goes spiralling around the forest and in seconds, two wolves come tearing through the trees. They rush up to the pack leaders, eager to know what the emergency is. When they find there is none, they seem momentarily miffed but soon content themselves with pulling some classic wolfish poses on conveniently situated tree stumps. I'm a few yards from them, snapping away with my camera. Being photographed clearly stokes the smouldering coals of their vanity.|
This brand new walking-with-wolves experience is a world away from your usual wolf-spotting trip. The latter has to contend with the fact that normally this noble creature, being a blithe and wily spirit, cares nothing for the fact that you have a limited amount of annual leave and an onerous bucket list to tick off. It thus cannot be relied upon to turn up at a prescribed venue at a pre-arranged time, but is happy to condemn you to days of aimless wandering across godless far-flung tundra in the hope that at some stage, your guide will point towards a distant wood and cry: "There's a wolf! That little speck to the right of the ... oh, gone now."
When my friend Kat and I went to see timber wolves Maska and Kajika, we didn't even have to leave the British mainland – we simply hopped on a train to the attractive Cumbrian coastal resort of Grange-over-Sands. Furthermore, after some initial sniffing, licking and gentle biting of our outstretched fists, the wolves let us join their incipient pack for an afternoon's sortie, which was pretty obliging really.
We met up with the surrogate leaders of the pack, human bipeds Dee and Daniel (it was they who had howled the back-to-pack cry) at their farmhouse at Ayside, a hamlet perched in the hills a few miles north of Grange. A swift Land Rover ride later and we were in a pine wood above Windermere where brothers Maska and Kajika piled out of the back to begin an instantaneous recce of the area (the wolves live at the farmhouse, under close supervision, rather than roaming completely free). This isn't quite the return of the wolf into the English wilds after 270 years, though, as Dee explains: "These are timber wolves with some Czechoslovakian wolf dog bred into them because it's illegal to let pure-bred wolves run free in Britain." Such a spoilsport, the government.
The siblings, just 24 weeks old yet already somewhat larger than full-grown Alsatians, are vying for the position of alpha male. Maska is noticeably bigger and edges the rough-and-tumbles we watch break out from time to time, but size isn't everything in the lupine world. "Kajika is the one with the natural leadership abilities," Daniel points out, "so he could end up as the leader with Maska as his enforcer." Apparently there are alpha, beta, gamma, delta and even omega wolves, so Maska and Kajika are necessarily keen to nab the top roles before their pack gets any bigger.
As we strolled through the pines the rivals foraged about beneath the trees, building up a mental map of smells while trying to outdo each other, not only in shows of strength but in their ability to make clever decisions and discover important information about their surroundings. We watched them fascinated and, I confess, somewhat smug that we were privy to what was going on in their great big heads. And great big they are, too – the brothers will double in size over the next 18 months, weighing in at up to a Baskervillian nine stone.
While Dee fed the boys a treat of cheese straight from a tube (it simulates a mother's teat, apparently), Daniel regaled us with wolfy facts – they have eight distinct howls, for example, and their hearing is nine times better than the average dog's – and taught us how to stroke them safely. This is essential knowledge when their bite can exert a pressure of 1,500lb per square inch. With my hand at Kajika's jaw-line, I slowly worked my way upwards until his flattened ears gave me the "yes, you can stroke my head" signal. I can tell you, gaining the trust of a wolf is the new swimming with dolphins.
It's fitting that the first place in Britain where you can walk with wolves is very close to the spot where England's last wild wolf was reportedly killed, in the 14th century. The Unsworth's Yard micro-brewery, one of whose ales is the excellent Last Wolf, in the medieval village of Cartmel, is where we were shown a venerable copy of Mrs Jerome Mercier's tale of the killing of the country's final wolf. It involves an unjustly spurned son, a dashed romance, a mysterious knight and a happy ending for all – except the wolf.
It's all good courtly stuff. The only fly in the ointment is that wolves are known to have roamed England as late as the 1740s. A more plausible story is that a local landowner organised a mass hunt for a predatory wolf, who was finally cornered on a promontory called Humphrey Headcorrect and there dispatched.
In honour of this benighted beast, we wolfed down a delicious dinner at The Pig and Whistle in Cartmel – L'Enclume chef Simon Rogan's first pub venture – that included wild mushroom broth and gariguette strawberry pannacotta. And thence back to Grange and the Clare House Hotel, with its old-school comfiness and startling array of local cheeses. Before we turned in for the night, we took a starlit walk along the promenade from where we saw Humphrey Head's huge bulk lowering in the darkness. But what was that sound we could hear on the breeze? The wind playing over the marshes perhaps? Or was it the ghostly howl of England's last wolf calling out to England's newest pack?