Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior
Wolfology Item # 365
v. 25, n. 4 (1995)

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Place-Name Evidence for the Former Distribution and Status of Wolves...in Britain
C. Aybes & D.W. Yalden
Place-name evidence includes over 200 places in England named after Wolves....Wolf place-names are most frequent in upland countries, but are not related to the counties which had most woodland at the time of the Domesday survey...despite the frequent allusions in the place-names themselves to woodland....It appears that Wolves were still numerous and widespread when the Anglo-Saxons...were naming our countryside....
The primary evidence for the former occurrence of extinct species is either archaeological or documentary....
The evidence provided by place-names offers a third source which has been quoted briefly by various authors...but not systematically compiled....We have attempted to compile...[a] comprehensive [listing] for Wolves Canis lupus....
In his scholarly appraisal of the history of the British countryside, Rackham (1986) is generally skeptical about place-name evidence for the former existence of extinct animals. He points out, for example, that in addition to four-legged Wolves, there were legendary and symbolic wolves, outlaws were declared wulvesheafod (to be hunted and killed) and, conversely, men might take Wolf as their name, or part of it (Beowulf, Ethelwulf, etc.) He suggests that the name Woolpit "was identified in the twelfth century with what were already very ancient ditches" and "bears as much evidence for Wolves as Giants Grave does for giants."
In her equally scholarly appraisal of place-name evidence, Gelling (1984) asserts that, "the Wolves of Woolley, the Geese of Goosey and the Swine of Swineford were matters of life and death to the Anglo-Saxons, and the choice of word to describe the settlement site is as serious as any statement our forefathers have bequeathed to us."....
Clearly, there must be some middle ground between these opposite positions. Not all names, particularly in their modern spelling, can be taken literally....When a name can be traced back to an Anglo-Saxon or Old Norse form, however, it is more probable that it refers to a genuine wild animal. The supposition that Owlands got its name from the Owls that once lived there is understandable but old documents show it as Ulvelundes (ON ulfr wolf and lundr grove). Similarly, Woolpit has nothing to do with washing wool, but was probably a pit for trapping Wolves (OE, wulf pytt). Somewtimes the same modern name can be shown to derive from quite different roots; Woodale is wulf dael (Wolf valley) at SE 0279 but woh dael (crooked valley) at SE 0677.
The problem of personal names derived from animal names remains a very real one, but the associated elements in the place-name may offer guidance. A settlement (tun) or village (ham) is unlikely to belong to a Wolf, or to be associated with one; Wolverton and Wolverhampton are clearly nothing to do with Wolves, but are, respectively, the "settlement of Wulfhere", and the "high town of Wulfrun", a wealthy female landowner ....Hills, caves and valleys, however, are more likely to be associated with Wolves, so that Wolborough, Woolacombe and Wooladun, respectively, Wulfa beorg (Wolves' Hill), Wulfa cumb (Wolves' Valley) and Wulfa dun (Wolves' Hill) are appropriately listed....
It remains likely that any single name is open to doubt or discussion of its real meaning; even if it can be agreed that a place-name refers, say, to four-legged Wolves, not people, there must remain some possibility that the Wolves in question were legendary, mythical, or heraldic. Taken together, however, the quantity of evidence and its associations is such that real Wolves...were surely involved. It is this quantity of evidence that we have tried to assemble and assess.
The Wolf Canis lupus
Historical evidence...attests to the importance of the Wolf in Britain in former times. The medicinal properties of the waters at Bath were reputedly discovered in pre-Roman times by observing that cattle which had been wounded by Wolves recuperated more quickly if they stood in the water. Archbishop Egbert, writing in AD750, said that "if a Wolf should attack cattle of any herd, and the animal shall die in consequence, no Christian may touch it." According to Harting (1880), the Anglo-Saxons named January Wolfmonat (wolf-month) and the month was the start of the season for hunting them, but this is not confirmed by Anglo-Saxon scholars ...In the mid tenth century, Wolves were so numerous that retreats -- Hospitals or Spittals -- were made for the protection of travellers....When Athelstan defeated Hywel Dda, King of Wales and his allies, in AD937 at Brunnanburgh, he imposed a yearly tribute of 300 wolf skins, and a later successor, Edgar, maintained the same tribute on Hywel Dda's successor, Ludwall. One account says that this attempt at exterminating Wolves succeeded after 3 years, and that there was none to be found in the fourth year. This seems to have been, at best, only a local effect, however, for Welsh historians say that Wolves were eliminated in a campaign that lasted 32 years, and other accounts indicate that the Welsh princes continued to pay this tribute to the English Kings up to the death of Harold in 1066. Taylor (1911) claims that the island of Wolvesey at Winchester was the place where the Welsh paid this tribute, though the same claim has also been made for both a site at Glastonbury and for Wolfpit in Cambridgeshire. After the battle of Brunnanburgh, the bodies of the slain were said to have been left on the battle field to be eaten by Ravens, White-tailed Eagles and Wolves....Records of Wolves in England continue to at least 1304-05, when eight cattle were killed by them in Rossendale. In Scotland, however, they survived much later; in 1427, in the reign of James I, a law was passed to enforce Wolf hunting, requiring attendance at three hunts a year during the cubbing season (25 April-1 August). This continued at least until 1457, in the reign of James II, but Wolf numbers remained high through Mary's reign (1547-87), and the Queen herself hunted Wolves in the forest of Atholl in 1563. Deforestation during the sixteenth century seems to have facilitated the destruction of Wolves (and their prey), and in 1684, 20 years after the last mention of them, Sir Robert Sibbald declared them extinct in Scotland....
In Ireland, too, Wolves have a long documented history, back to AD655 when Augustin mentions Wolves, and to the eighth century when Nennius lists the Wolf among animals harmful to man. Giraldus Cambrensis refers to Wolves in Ireland in 1183 and again in 1185-86, and even Shakespeare refers, in As you like it, "To the howling of the Irish Wolves against the moon". The "last wolf in Ireland" has claimants in most counties, with various dates in the period 1700-20 which seem plausible, and a tail of dates which seem increasingly unlikely through to the 1780s....
Place-names in England confirm both the widespread nature and, if numbers are to be believed, abundance of Wolves in former times. Most names derive from the Old English wulf, or from the Old Norse ulfr; Old English names date from AD450 onwards, the Old Norse names from around AD900 onwards. The list (Table 2) includes 230 names in England, about half of them minor features such as field names. The highest numbers are in the northern counties (Cumberland 19, Westmoreland 21, West Yorkshire 45), but most counties that have been researched have at least a few relevant names. Huntingdon, Norfolk and Yorkshire (East Riding) seem to have none; all are low-lying, eastern, counties. The elements associated with these names refer in half the cases to habitat features that one might associate with Wolves: hill 16% (ON haugr, OE hlaw, OE hyll, OE beorg), clearing 17% (OE, leah, OE rydding), valley 10% (OE denu, ON dalr, OE cumb), and wood 9% (OE leah which changed its meaning from wood, to clearing, to meadow; OE sceaga, OE graefe).
The largest single category (18%) is of wolf pits (OE pytt, ON graef), which must have been the traditional means of controlling Wolves. Rackham (1986) says that 11 indications of wolf-pit occur in the Anglo-Saxon charters, but doubts whether these were really pits to trap Wolves. However, there is ample evidence, world-wide, that a baited pit was a standard way to kill Wolves, and one of considerable antiquity....The illustrated manuscript Le Livre de la Chasse de Gaston Phoebus, Conte de Foix, dated 1387-1391...both describes and illustrates a wolf-pit....
Some 25% of Wolf place-names fall in the category of miscellaneous, and include some of the more intriguing examples. Great Wolford (OE wulfa, weard) was the site of a look out for Wolves. A number of place-names refer to sites where Wolves played (ON ulfr, lekr), such as Ulfeldock, Ullock Moss, Ullock Mains and Wooloaks.
A number of names which have been formerly claimed to implicate Wolves have been omitted from the list. Wotobank is reputed to be the site where the Lord of Beckermont found the body of his wife which had been savaged by a Wolf, and is said to have cried in anguish "woe to this bank". However, [the English Place-Name Society (EPNS)] cites this as Wodow Bank, derived from Waldhowholme (OE wald, forest; hoh, mound), and we have omitted this name. Harting (1880) also mentioned Wolfscote and Wolfhamcote, but both refer to people. Dent (1974) thought that the Old French Loup or Loue (Wolf or She-Wolf) produced Louven Howe and Loose Hill, but EPNS suggests that the latter is in fact "louse-hill" and ignores the former....
Whelp place-names, from the OE hwelp or ON hvelpr, imply the pups of Wolves, Dogs or possibly Foxes, though it could indicate a male nickname. Whelpdale is a common surname, inherited by a family that once lived in Whelpdale in Scotland....Whelpside [Cumbria] was apparently only named in 1738, so probably does not refer to Wolves. However, Whelpside [Westmoreland] occurs twice, derived from ON hvelpr, saetr, cub sheiling, and although Dent (1974) argues that these were sheilings owned by a man called Whelp, EPNS  ascribes them to Wolves. Whelpstrother, Welpo and Whelprigg and Whelpstone Crag are all accepted as referring to Wolf cubs. All are in likely habitats, in mountainous country and at higher altitudes, with numerous other place-name records of Wolves nearby. However, two cases of Whelpley (Sussex, Wiltshire) are in less likely areas, and may refer to a Fox or Dog.
Celtic place names are much harder to collate and interpret. The most familiar element in anglicizations from Scottish Gaelic is maddie or moddie, seen in Drummoddie (Wolf ridge) and Craigmaddie (Wolf rock). This comes madadh, strictly translated dog, but the more usual word for dog is cu, and madadh place-names seems to indicate Wolf....Lochmaddy (Outer Isles) is unlikely to refer to Wolves, and more probably indicates dogs, but names in remote or high areas may more probably be accepted as Wolf place names.
Madadh allaidh, wild dog, or Wolf, is given in modern Gaelic dictionaries, with allmhadadh as an alternative. Breach is an obsolete word for Wolf, and appears in Tarbreoch (Wolf ground) and Braco/Breagho (Wolf field) in Scotland, as well as in Breach mhagh (wolf fields) in many places in Ireland. However, the word derives from, and resembles, breac, speckled or brindled, and the various hills called Beinn Bhreac are surely speckled hills, rather than wolf hills, casting doubt upon other names of this derivation. Braichlie in Glen Muick is interpreted as Wolf wood by MacDonald (1899), but Watson & Allan (1984) indicate that this is Breachlach, a speckled place. Fael is another Gaelic wolf term that seems to not to have persisted in the modern languages, but lingers in Feltrim (Wolf hill) near Dublin....
Place names in Wales involving Wolves either come from OE wulf or the Old Welsh bleidd. Pughe (1832) gives variants of bleidd in his Welsh dictionary, for example bleiddadwy meaning voracious or predatory, obviously a linguistic parallel to the derogatory uses of wolf...in English. It is not clear to us why the Welsh for Wolf should differ so strongly from the Scottish and Irish terms; no madadh type place-names appear in Wales, nor does bleidd appear in Scotland or Ireland. However, Cornish has bleit for Wolf, clearly the same root, and EPNS suggests four or five Cornish place-names that incorporate this element....
Table 1: Abbreviations used in this paper.
Table 2: Wolf place-names in England. *
Table 3: Whelp place-names.
Table 4: Wolf place-names in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. *
Figure 1: Archaelogical sites for Wolf Canis lupus in Great Britain.
Figure 2: The distribution of place-names involving Wolf in Great Britain.
Appendix 1: Archaelogical sites: Wolf

* Tables 2 & 4 are partially reproduced below. (Place-names no longer in use, listed in the original, are not included here.)

Wolf place-names in England
Berkshire: Woolley Green (Wolves' wood).....Woolley Ho (Wolves' wood).....Woolvers Barn (Wolf Slope) Buckinghamshire: Woolley's (Wolves' clearing).....Woolman's wood (She-Wolf's enclosure) Cambridgeshire: Winfold Farm (Wolf's hollow)
Cheshire: Welfehay (Wolves' enclosure).....Wlfgreneockes (Oak at the Wolf green).....Woefy (Wolf trap).....Wolven Field (She Wolf field).....Woolfall (Wolf trap).....Woolmers (Wolves' moor)
Cornwall: Blable (Wolf pool or pit).....Carplight (Hillock of Wolves).....Carblake (Enclosure for? Wolves) .....Trembleath (Farm of the Wolf).....Treblethick (Farm of the Wolf).....Wooldown (Wolves' hill)..... Woolley (Wolves' clearing)
Cumberland: Uldale (Wolves' valley).....Uldale Fm (Wolves' valley).....Ulgill (Wolf gill).....Ullock Coppice (Place where Wolves play).....Ullock Mains (Place where Wolves play).....Ullock Moss (Place where Wolves play).....Ullock Pike (Place where Wolves play).....Ulpha (Wolf hill)......Ulpha Park (Wolf hill)..... Wolf Crags (Wolf cragg).....Wolsty (Wolf-frequented path).....Woolbusk (Wolf bush).....Wooloaks (Place where Wolves play)
Derbyshire: Wolf's Pit.....Wollow (Wolves' hill).....Woo Dale (Wolves' dale).....Wooler Knoll (Wolves' hill) .....Wooley (Wolves' clearing).....Wooley Barn Close (Wolves' clearing).....Wooley Moor (Wolves' clearing).....Wooley Pasture (Wolves' clearing).....Wooleybridge (Wolves' clearing).....Woolow (Wolves' hill)
Devon: Wolborough (Wolves' hill).....Woolacome (Wolves' valley).....Wooladon (Wolves' hill)..... Woolcombe (Wolves' valley).....Woolcombe Barn (Wolves' valley).....Woolcombes (Wolves' valley)..... Woolleigh (Wolves' clearing).....Woolley (Wolves' clearing).....Woolridge (Wolves' ridge).....Woolwell (Wolves' spring)
Dorset: Wolve Mead (Wolf meads).....Woolley Down (Wolves' glade)
Essex: Great & Little Woolpit (Wolf pit).....Woolpit (Wolf pit).....Woolpits (Wolf pit)
Gloucestershire: Woeful Hill (Wolf hill enclosure).....Wolfridge Wood (Ridge haunted by a wolf)..... Wooferton Croft (Wolf enclosure).....Woolpits (Wolf pits).....Woolpits Common (Wolf pits)
Hampshire: Wolvesey (Wolves' island).....Woolmer Forest (Wolves' mere forest).....Woolmer Post (Wolves' mere)
Herefordshire: Penblaith (Wolf point).....Wolfheles (Wolf cover).....Wolphy (Wolf enclosure).....Woolpits (Wolf pit)
Hertfordshire: Wolfs Fd (Wolf Field).....Woolmer Green (Wolves' pool).....Woolpits (Wolf pits)
Huntingdonshire: Woolley (Wolves' clearing).....Woolvey (Wolf enclosure)
Lancashire: Ulvethwait (Wolf clearing).....Vlvegraregate (Wolf pit).....Wolfenden (Enclosure to protect flocks from Wolves).....Wolfhole Crag (Wolf's corner).....Wolfstones (Wolf stones).....Woolden (Wolves' valley)
Northamptonshire: Woolfellhill Road (Wolf fen).....Woolspit (Wolf pit or snare)
Nottinghamshire: Wolfeleyhill Farm (Wolf hill enclosure)
Northumberland: Wooden (Wolves' valley).....Wooley (Wolf hill).....Wooley Hill (Wolves' clearing)..... Wooley Park (Wolves' hill park)
Rutland: Woolfit (Wolf pit)
Shropshire: Great Hoopits (Wolf pits).....Wolpyttes lane (Wolf pits)
Staffordshire: Wholley (Wood of the Wolves).....Wooler Moor (Wolf pond moor).....Woolley (Wood or glade of the Wolves)
Suffolk: Woolpit (Wolf pit)
Surrey: Wool Mead (Wolf mead).....Woolpits (Wolf pits).....Woolpit (Wolf pit).....Woolborough (Wolf hill)
Sussex: Woolborough Farm (Wolf hill).....Woolfly Farm (Wolves' clearing).....Woolpack Farm (Wolf pit)
Warwickshire: Wolf's Heath (Wolves' valley).....Wolvey (Wolf island/marsh).....[Great & Little] Wolford (Lookout for Wolves
Westmoreland: Antrum (Wolves' cave).....Owshaw (Wolf copse).....Uldale (Wolves' valley).....Uldale Gill (Wolves' valley).....Uldale Head (Wolves' valley).....Ulgraves (Wolf pits).....Ullathorns (Thorns where Wolves play).....Ullsmoor (Wolf marsh).....Ullthwaite Bridge (Wolf-haunted clearing).....Ullthwaite Rigg (Wolf-haunted clearing).....Ulpha (Wolf enclosure).....Ulsber (Wolf's hill).....Wofa Holes (Wolf hill hollow) .....Wolf Howe (Wolf hill).....Wuffet Garth (Wolf-haunted cottage enclosure)
Wiltshire: Wolf Hall (Corner frequented by Wolves).....Woolley (Wolves' clearing/wood).....Woolmer Fm (Wolves' pool).....Woolmore Fm (Wolves' pool)
Worcestershire: Wolfho (Wolf hill)
Yorkshire North: Owlands (Wolf's grove).....Wolf Pit.....Woodale (Wolves' valley).....Woodale Beck (Stream through the Wolves' valley).....Woof Howe (Wolf mound)
Yorkshire West: Brigberr (Wolf stream bridge).....Uldale House (Wolf Valley).....Wlfstanes (Wolf stones) .....Wolf Stones.....Wolfstones.....Wool Royd (Wolves' clearing).....Wooldale (Wolves' valley)..... Woolgraves (Wolf copse).....Woolgreaves (Wolves' wood).....Woolley (Wolves' forest glade).....Woolley Bank (Wolf glade bank).....Woolley Common (Wolf glade common).....Woolley Edge.....Woolley Moor .....Woolley Nab (Wolf hillock).....Woolley Wood (Wolf clearing).....Woolpits Close (Wolf pit)..... Woolthwaite (Clearing infested by Wolves).....Woolwaites (Wolf clearing)
Wolf place-names in Scotland, Ireland and Wales
Scotland: Ach a Mhadaidh (Wolf field?).....All mhad Barn (Wolf rock).....Allt a Mhadaidh-allaidh (Wolf stream).....Allt Mhadagain (Wolf stream).....Bail'Uilbh (Wolf farm).....Blairmaddie (Wolf field).....Braco (Wolf field?).....Carn a Mhadaidh (Wolf cairn).....Claymoddie (Wolf glen).....Clais Mhadaidh (Hollow of the Wolf?).....Claisan Mhadaidh (Little hollow of the Wolf?).....Cnoc a Mhadaidh (Wolf hill).....Coire a Mhadaidh (Wolf corrie).....Coire Madagan Mor (Big Wolf corrie).....Craigmaddie Fell (Wolf rock)..... Craigmaddie House (Wolf rock).....Creag a Mhadaidh (Rocky hill of the Wolf?).....Culmaddie (Wolf's corner).....Drummoddie (Wolf ride).....Gleann Uillibh (Wolf glen).....Glen Maddie (Glen of Wolves)..... Guibean Ulavailt (Peak of the Wolf stream).....Lag a Mhadadh (Hollow of the Wolf).....Lochan a Mhadaidh (Wolf lochan).....Lock Gleannan a Mhadaidh (Lake of little glen of the Wolf).....Luban Feith a Mhadaidh (Little bend in the burn of the Wolf).....Meall nam Madadh (Hill of the Wolves?).....Meall a Mhadaidh (Wolf hill).....Meall a Mhadaidh Beag (Little Wolf hill).....Meall a Mhadaidh Mor (Big Wolf hill).....Tarbreoch (Wolfground).....Uaimh Ulabha (Wolf cave).....Ullipsdale (Wolf's dale).....Ulva (Wolf island).....Uluvalt (Wolf burn).....Wolf Camp.....Wolf Cluech Burn.....Wolf Cleugh.....Wolf Corner.....Wolf Grain (Wolf stream).....Wolf Hill.....Wolfhill.....Wolfholls.....Wolf Holes.....Wolf Hope Burn.....Wolf Land.....Wolf Stone.....Wolflee (Wolf hill).....Wolfelee (Wolf wood)
Ireland: Aughnabrack (Hill of the Wolf).....Brackley (Wolf field).....Breach Mhagh (Wolf field).....Breaghva (Wolf field).....Breaghwy (Wolf field).....Breaghwyanteean (Wolf field of the fairy hill).....Breaghy (Wolf field).....Breahig (Wolf field).....Britway (Wolf field).....Caherbreagh (Den of Wolves).....Feltrim Hill/Faeldruim (Wolf hill).....Iskanamacteera (Water of the Wolves).....Knockaunvicteera (Little hill of the Wolf).....Wolf Lake
Wales: Blaidd-pwll (Wolf's pit).....Cae Blaidd (Wolf's field).....Cae'r Blaidd (Wolf field).....Camfa'r Bleiddiaw (Wolves' leap).....Castell y Blaidd (Wolf's castle).....Ffos y Bleiddaid (ditch of the Wolves).....Llannerch y Bleiddiau (Wolves' glade).....Nant y Blaidd (She-Wolf's brook).....Nant y Fleiddiast (She-Wolf's brook).....Pontbleiddyn (Wolf bridge).....Pistyll y Blaidd (Wolf's rill).....Pwll y Blaidd (Wolf pits).....Wern-bleidd (Wolf glen).....Wern Bleiddiau (Wolves' glen).....Wolf's Castle..... Wolfsdale (valley haunted by Wolves).....Wolfpits.....Woolpits Reen (Wolf pits)