Howling with wolves… A normal Friday night activity right?
If you want a totally different but absolutely fascinating way to spend an evening, then look no further than ‘Howl Night’ at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust: the chance to learn about these incredible and often misunderstood animals, watch them up close, and communicate with them by howling at them and experiencing their response – a howl that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck!
Based in Beenham, in Berkshire, the UKWCT was set up in 1995 by the late Robert Palmer and his wife Tsa, who fell in love with wolves following a trip to Alaska in the 1970s and subsequently kept more than 15 wolves over a 20-year period at the same site. The Trust is a not-for-profit organisation now run by a handful of permanent staff and an army of wolf-loving volunteers. Its aims are to support education, conservation and research into wolves and enhance public awareness and knowledge of wild wolves. The trust is now home to ten wolves, living in four separate packs across the 50-acre site, including both Arctic and North-Western wolves. Money raised form visits goes towards keeping the wolves they have and contributing to an array of wolf-conservation charities and projects across the world. So far with the help of visitors to the centre, they have raised and donated over £324,000 – a pretty incredible amount.
Wolf night starts with a warm greeting and a hot cuppa in the main visitor centre and a chance to mingle with the other people for whom choosing to spend a Friday night learning about wolves is totally normal. There was a real mix of people, from young to old, although the most easy demographic to spot were your hardcore wolf-lovers in their array of wolf-covered clothing. However I think most of the room could be classed as the ‘mildly curious’ (the bracket I think we’d put ourselves in), who just wanted to do something different and interesting and learn about a creature that perhaps like us, they knew very little about.
After a quick introduction by one of the wolf experts we all walked down to the education room, passing the wolf enclosures enroute and already getting excited about the chance to come back to ‘talk’ with the wolves. The talk was about 45 minutes long and the presenter was SO passionate about wolves that it was hard not to leave the talk feeling enamoured yourself (with the wolves that is, not the presenter). The talk focused on wolf communication and the reasons for their different vocalisations. It was genuinely fascinating and not being particularly knowledgeable about wolves we learned an awful lot.
Here are some random wolfy facts for you:
- Wolves were last seen in England in the 14thCentury although were reported to have been sighted in Scotland until the 18thCentury. The species was driven to extinction by a combination of deforestation and hunting.
- Wolves still exist across Europe in small numbers and are protected by EU law (although this does not seem to stop them being culled). See the map below for where they still live across the world.
- The life-span of a wolf is about 6-8 years in the wild, but up to 17 years in captivity
- Wolves howl to communicate and it can have a number of functions: as a warning cry for other wolves to stay away from their territory, to signal to separated pack members and also to rally the pack together to go hunting. Male wolves also howl to attract females as their howl can indicate their size and health
- Wolves often howl in packs – called a ‘chorus howl’ – all howling at different pitches and different melodies. This can protect the pack as the different pitches/melodies can trick listeners into thinking the pack is larger than it actually is
- Wolf howls can be heard up to 10km away in the forest and 16km away in the treeless Tundra (they raise their heads to project their howl further)
- Howling is very seasonal and during ‘denning’ when raising pups howling drops to almost zero as they want to avoid giving the dens location away to other animals.
Although the idea of keeping a three year old still for a 45mins presentation did worry me slightly, he was actually absolutely awesome and remained pretty engaged. There were enough pictures, video clips and recordings to keep him interested and I kept repeating the information for him, which maintained his childhood curiosity. And when he did want to start fidgeting, like every good parent, I of course just whipped out the snacks!
After the talk came the bit we had all been looking forward to… the chance to go back outside and howl with the wolves! First we met Nuka, Tala and Tundra, three wolves born at the Trust in 2011. Having been briefed by our resident wolfy expert on how to create the perfect howl, we all set about howling (yes, a little embarrassing at first, but you’ve just got to go with it!)….. and were greeted with an immediate response by the dominant male of the pack – Nuka! It was amazing! After a few more human howls, his sisters also obliged and responded with a perhaps half-hearted howl, but nevertheless a howl! It was a totally incredible experience and unlike anything any of us had experienced before!
The wolves were surprisingly tame and clearly had a lovely bond with the keeper – they came right up to the wire enclosure for a stroke and even let him pull chunks of fur out to distribute – Oskar is now the proud owner of a tuft of real wolf fur. So cool!
We repeated our howling at the various wolf packs, our favourite being the Arctic wolves (Sikko, Pukkak and Massak) because of all our Arctic connections. At one point we did even experience a sort of ‘chorus howl’ from a handful of wolves in response to our now much-improved and finely honed wolf howl! After about 30 minutes of howling we were left to our own devices to just watch the wolves and continue howling if we desired.
I can honestly say it was an utterly brilliant and totally unique way to spend a Friday evening and at a mere £10 per head (which all goes to support the incredible work of the UKWCT), it is money well spent. Whether you love wolves or have never even stopped to think about them, you’ll learn something and have a great experience.
There are a number of Howl Nights coming up in the New year and also the centre is open to the public on Wednesdays so anyone can come and visit. You could also adopt a wolf or come on a ‘discovery day’ or a photography day, or even become a member of the Trust and go walking with the wovles! Whatever your level of interest there is an option for you.
So time to get practicing that howl!
See when the next howl night is here