Depending on your perception, the wolf is either the stuff of nightmares or a source of beauty and wonderment.

But for nature conservationists like Derek Gow, the wolf forms part of a rather more complex subject, one that relies heavily on facts instead of tales reminiscent of Red Riding Hood.

Demonised in folklore, the wolf has been persecuted, exploited and – in Britain’s case – massacred to extinction.

It could be argued that this was the predictable outcome for an apex predator jostling for equal billing with humans, but in recent years the wolf has re-established itself across the European continent, thanks to its protected status and the realisation that this species plays a vital role in the ecosystem.

Mr Gow is determined to ensure the wolf returns to these shores as well – and he’s prepared to take on all-comers to make it happen, as documented in his latest book, ‘Hunt for the Shadow Wolf: The lost history of wolves in Britain’.

“If you release wolves in the far north of Scotland, which is probably where the last of them lived, they’ll breed, and within a year or two they’ll be moving through London and killing the deer in Richmond Park.

“The reality is that they can live right amongst us without any issue at all. The problem is whether we can tolerate them.”

Mr Gow’s been described as the country’s ‘favourite maverick rewilding expert’, but it’s an epithet he shrugs off with characteristic disdain.

“I don’t really care what people call me – I’m just trying to make things a bit better,” he says.

Folklore may be powerfully embedded in people’s psyche, but the suggestion that a fear of wolves has become part of our DNA is readily dismissed.

“A thousand years ago we didn’t fear the wolf. There’s nothing to fear, it’s quite a shy creature.”

He says much of the irrational fear stems from the fact that wolves used to dig up plague and battlefield sites back in the Middle Ages to devour the cadavers.

Practical though it was for a wolf to feast on graves, the sight of a ferocious-looking carnivore munching on a decomposing body must have given superstitious locals the heebie jeebies – a phobia that was easy to exploit by a certain group.

“This whole loathing of the wolf came about because we were persuaded some 800 years ago by powerful institutions like the medieval Church that this creature was from Satan, and that it was an evil animal.”

This had such a pernicious effect on society that it has lasted to this day. Despite this, figures from 2022 by the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe show that the species is thriving in the continent. There are some 19,000 wolves distributed across the EU, a rise of 4,700 since 2016. Across the wider continent the number stands at 21,500 - up from 17,000 during the same period.

Yet, challenges remain, especially in areas where wolves have returned after a decades-long absence and where livestock are threatened. Not that this cuts any ice with Mr Gow.

“About 12 million lambs are produced every year and 85 per cent of those go for export. The sheep in their own right do terrible damage. When you look at the uplands of Britain, be it Dartmoor, Bodmin, Wales or the Highlands of Scotland – these are the barebones of what the landscape should be.”

He also gives short thrift to a certain type of environmentalist.

“The way we’ve been doing it hasn’t been working very well. We need to develop a very different kind of nature conservationist, someone who understands farming, ecology, forestry and the genetics of captive breeding of endangered species.”

In a sense, he is at one with farmers, pointing out that they understand the logistics of mass production. By contrast, the nature conservationists he criticises “produce big, long windy reports and then sit on them doing f**k all until the object of desire is extinct”.

He points out that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe, and official figures show that species have declined by about 19 per cent on average since 1970.

“You look at flooding wetlands in Somerset and there’s barely a duck or wading bird there. Time after time you look at soils that are dead, and it’s a really frightening situation.

“The wolf is a forest guardian. Obviously it kills and eats deer, but it basically ensures that all other life that lives under it has to move. (Deer) can’t live in the rich river valleys where they consume all the succulent young shoots of the willow because the wolf knows they are there.”

Culling deer is not the answer, either, in case you were wondering.

“We keep going on about culling deer and encouraging people to eat venison...and it’s not working. We’ve got a national herd of about a million deer and it doesn’t matter how hard we are shooting them, it’s not having the effect we need it to have.”

Now living on a 300-acre farm on the Devon-Cornwall border, he is not certain he’ll see the reintroduction of the wolf in his lifetime, but he points to the success of another species as a hopeful sign.

“Twenty five years ago they told us that the reintroduction of the beaver couldn’t be done. Now there’s 3,500 and most people accept this is a very good thing.”

The sight of wolves roaming around Dartmoor could well be a fitting epitaph to his life’s work in what would be a case of truth outdoing fiction. After all, the demonic hound in the Hound of the Baskervilles was not a mean old wolf but a ravenous common or garden pooch.

Derek Gow will be in conversation with Guy Shrubsole at the Dartington Trust this Saturday, March 23 at 8pm.