Who killed the last wolf in Wales?

A silhouette of a wolf with piercing white eyes
[Getty Images]

Wild dogs were a daily, or nightly, source of terror for people living in the principalities which formed ancient Wales until at least the 13th Century.

So it is perhaps little surprise these dogs, or more likely wolves, have formed a massive part of mythic and folklore values to this day, from place names to legends.

Dr Juliette Wood, Cardiff University’s Welsh folklore expert, is trying to unravel the mysteries in online lectures on behalf of The Folklore Society.

She said: “For an age who never had to compete with wolves, it is impossible for us to understand their preoccupation with them."

She added: "Maybe the closest you could get to is ‘stranger danger’, or ‘just say no’, a memorable tale to warn youngsters of the potential peril they faced."

The best evidence available suggests the last wolves in Wales died out in the medieval period, about 1200 AD, and claimed relatively few lives.

Nevertheless, the stories of who killed the last one in Wales and where go on until the Tudor period.

Some gruesome examples of wolf paws were kept at Island House at Laugharne.

The claim is that the wolf paws come from Dinefwr, which would link them back to more distinguished Welsh princes.

According to more popular legend, the last Welsh wolf was killed near Coed y Bleiddiau (Wood of the Wolves), near Maentwrog in Eryri National Park, also known as Snowdonia, in the early decades of the 16th Century.

A competing story is that the last example died after being defeated in Ffos y Bleiddaid (Ditch of the Wolves), around the same time.

The woodland here is called Coed y Bleiddiau and a modern statue commemorates the event.

“If you follow the dates of the legends, it’s probably nonsense, as wolves would have died out at least two or three hundred years before," Dr Wood said.

“However, claiming you’d beaten such a beast made you almost invincible to your opponents, and very difficult to overcome in battle."

Wolf
Wolves are still native to Eurasia and North America - but not Wales [Getty Images]

The number of Welsh place names is easier to explain.

Blaidd means wolf in Welsh and pwll can be translated as pond or pool, or a hollow designed to trap large animals such as wolves and deer.

An example of these include Blaiddbwll (Wolf's Pit) in Pembrokeshire.

There are many Welsh locations which refer to wolf pits, most are attached to landscape features and may or may not be directly connected to wolf-hunting.

Among the others are Castell y Blaidd (Wolf's Castle) in Powys.

“The ring work there has been identified as a Norman building, but also as a shepherding site”, said Dr Wood.

“Whilst the spot may have previously been attacked by wolves, it’s more likely that it was named for its invincibility and potential as a safe haven for livestock – maybe something more of a marketing ploy.

“If you controlled the wolves, you controlled the people. By building something like the Wolf Castle you demonstrated your ability to protect – and therefore control – the people around you.”

An old sketch of a common wolf with a deer underneath it
Wolves in Welsh mythology are an example of fear, confusion and misdirection [Getty Images]

But the cautionary myths persisted.

“As well as a symbol of fear and warning, wolves in Welsh mythology are an example of confusion and misdirection," Dr Wood said.

“Llewelyn Fawr, prince of Gwynedd, killed his greyhound Gelert, as he’d mistakenly believed he’d savaged his newborn son."

Today it is remembered on a grassy mound in Beddgelert (Grave of Gelert).

“It’s a trope repeated throughout the world, and has even found its way into Disney.

“Llewelyn realised that the blood he’d found was from the wolf not the baby, and that the greyhound had protected the child

“Like most things in Welsh mythology, it’s designed to forewarn you of the follies of your actions. Also it was a way of interpreting the natural world as they saw it, and adding a sense of meaning to something which was almost impossible to explain”.