Should the lynx return to the wild in the UK?

I am always interested when one of the biggest newspapers in the country, echo a sentiment that I have been talking about in this blog. Do not worry, I have no thoughts of grandeur – there news has not been prompted by this blog. However, it is highly encouraging when someone else is saying the same thing.

This blog is devoted to encouraging the protection and rejuvenation of wild ecosystems – through helping recognize the benefits and (obviously still a work in progress) hopefully creating a way to advertise you wilderness and have people visit (while you offer some service, from access to your land, to food or accommodation (tent or other)) thereby making the wildlife that people share their land with a financial benefit to the rest of the business.

However, one of the big issue that ecosystems have throughout the world, is holes as a result of human caused extinctions.

In the UK we have no predators larger than foxes and badgers. While these animals might take a tiny abandoned deer fawn, they are incapable of taking much more than this.

In the past we had wolves, bears and lynx.

European Lynx rarely leave their woodland home

I will talk about wolves and bears in other articles, but the lynx is different. This is an in depth look at some of the issues that are at play here. As such, this article is perhaps a bit longer that this blogs articles normally are.

Lynx are virtually exclusively forest animals, which means that for the most part they did not prey on our livestock. Indeed it has been shown that far more often than not, a Lynx walking the edge of a woodland will not attack sheep 10m outside. This idea is confirmed by what happens in Romania; there is a population of around 1300-2800 lynx (I realize that this population range is wide, this is the problem with dealing with a species rarely seen), and it is estimated that in the worst areas of the world lynx might kill a sheep once every 2 years – or an annual loss of perhaps 2000 out of 9 million that live in Romania.

Now, one thing must be remembered. There has been some disgusting misuse of facts in the parliament in the UK. When a politician wishes to argue against sheep reintroductions they look at Norway, why is this dishonest? Norway is a special – even unique category in Europe. The reason that Norway suffers significant Lynx predation of its sheep, is because in Norway their sheep are often left to roam free in forests. This does not happen in the UK so to suggest that Lynx would destroy our sheep farms in ridiculous.

Almost all of the UK sheep are kept far from woodland, so these species would not interact.

So what would be the benefit of Lynx back in the wild in the UK? We have an exploding deer population in this country, and with no predators except for humans, they choose where to go based on things like food distribution. This is causing problems in many places, as deer will often forestall woodland regeneration by browsing on newly planted trees until their growth is stunted.

Lynx would quickly change this behaviour as the deer would be more scared. Now it is true, that unlike the wolf, Lynx are ambush predators and so do not advertise their presence. However, a sensible number of Lynx would rapidly reduce the numbers of deer down to more natural levels. Again, they will not create a climate of fear, so their impacts on deer collisions with cars would likely be in line with the population reduction, however with expectations that over a few decades the deer population could fall by 80-90% car collisions would be reduced by a similar amount – potentially with savings of 400-450 million in the costs, never mind the hundreds of lives that would also be saved.

Other benefits could include the eradication of some of the deer species that are not native to the UK, and therefore eradication of some of their troubling behaviours.

In some parts of Lynx range, half of their diet is fox. Certainly, the number of foxes in the UK is abnormally high, and this would change. Indeed, with an animal like lynx farmers often find that the Lynx reduces problems caused by foxes badgers and deer to a far greater impact than any problems that they the lynx bring with them.

Finally, Lynx would likely bring significant tourism to forested parts of the country, in turn bringing well paid work and opportunities to communities often long overlooked.

Derek Gow the maverick rewilding farmer has recently added 3 lynx to an enclosure on his land (though his aim is to see the species released into the countryside- these individuals are too tame to ever be set free). Having said that, these individuals still have a hunting instinct, and like other cats in zoos will often kill wild birds.

Many have argued that the Lynx became naturally extinct in the UK but this is not the case. The main cause for their extinction, was the loss of habitat as we cut down the forests of Britain, alongside persecution by humans. Given the huge resurgence in forests in the UK and the great benefit that they would be to this in regulating the food chain in these small wildernesses, it seems foolish to not see them return.

People do need to be on board, from those living in the countryside to farmers. However, with education support for this cat tends to increase dramatically the support for its return. There is a constant argument that modern farming is incompatible with predators, but that is rubbish. What is incompatible with a lack of predators is a population of deer in the UK that numbers in the millions. As I wrote above, given Lynx rarely leave their woodland home, they are rarely in the same place as sheep which are left to pasture in wide open fields – a place where Lynx rarely go.

Lynx populations like the wolf and bear, have bounced back since the second world war. In 1950 there were about 700 lynx spread across the EU, but that figure is now around 9000, and it is time they return to the UK. As the forests have become more fragmented, there has been a need to help establish new populations in habitat where they used to live, as they are often incapable of crossing the sea of humanity that surrounds these areas.

Another benefit of the Lynxes return, would be the rest of the carcass that they would not eat. In Europe beneficiaries might include Wolves, bears and wolverines, (I certainly hope they will return one day) but in the UK they would benefit foxes badgers wild boar polecats pine martens and wildcats, as well as raptors including White-tailed eagles Buzzards and Kites.

Last year Scottish Forestry spent £4.7 million on mitigating and reducing the impact deer have on our forests it should be noted that this is more than 3 times the £1.5 million spent by Scottish national heritage on deer management each year. The likelihood is that most if not all of this spending would become unnecessary as the Lynx would take on this role. A very generous compensation system could be set up to pay for true predation and still save significant amounts of money.

Places that Lynx reintroductions are currently being discussed are the Kieder forest in Northumberland, and an area of the Highlands near Cairgorms. It is believed that these two forests could support around 50 animals with the Scottish highlands supporting a further 500.

While many farmers are personally keen on rewilding, unfortunately the NFU is strongly opposed and does not allow these voices to be heard. Support is necessary – the Lynx reintroduction to Switzerland is still precarious due to illegal killings from disaffected farmer and other locals.

Natural England currently has no applications to reintroduce Lynx.

Even a small trial reintroduction would be a huge step forwards. Rewilding requires predators to allow the ecosystem to find an equilibrium. These animals were killed off by humans and I believe that we have a moral duty to bring them back. They have been absent for 1300 years which in human history is a long time, however on an evolutionary standpoint it is a blink of an eye. Any argument that they could no longer survive is absurd. The financial benefit of this species returning, would likely greatly exceed any cost. I personally find it hard to argue that countries around the world should protect the big cats when we are not willing to share our space with even a few hundred much smaller cats.

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