Is Lynx re-wilding in the UK the right thing to do?

I drew attention the other day on twitter to The Lynx Trust’s application to run a trial letting Lynx roam free in Britain’s forests, for the first time in over 1000 years. Now, I know Lynx isn’t strictly a member of Panthera, however as one of the potential trial forests is within a 20 minute drive from my family home, I hope I my excitement can be forgiven!

As expected, both sides of the re-wilding argument have valid points, some of which I shall outline below, before letting you make up your mind as to whether Lynx should be reintroduced into UK forests or not. I’ll leave my obviously biased opinion out of this one!

Lynx UK
Famous forests such as these could soon be home to bigger predators than just Foxes. Image thanks to http://www.theguardian.co.cuk

The Lynx trust has identified suitable forests throughout the whole of the UK, however there has been a particular bias to ones in the North of the country, with Norfolk being the only suitable forest identified in the South. The remainder in Cumbria, Northumberland, Aberdeenshire and Argyll & Bute all fall in the North of England and Scotland, with two forests being whittled down to housing three male and three female Lynx. Advocates of the project claim the introduction of Lynx will bring both sizeable ecological and economic benefits to Britain’s forests and rural communities, whilst the projects detractors (mainly farmers) are concerned about the potential loss of valuable livestock.

For the readers outside of the UK, forests here lack what we could call an apex predator. Whilst you could rightly argue that we, humans are in fact the apex predator, for all intents and purposes the UK is lacking of such an animal. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an apex predator simply means a predator at the top of the food chain, which isn’t preyed upon by any other animal. For example, common animals you may be familiar with such as the Lion, and Eagles are apex predators in their respective food chains. Whilst the UK currently has Foxes and (very few) Scottish Wild cats, neither can be considered apex predators of a forest food chain.

uk rewilding lynx panthera
Although its population is through to be in the low hundreds, the Scottish Wildcat remains one of Britain’s largest predators. Image thanks to http://www.electricscotland.com

Supporters of the reintroduction argue that Lynx will help bring the UK’s dying forests back to life. With no predator to control their numbers, deer populations in the UK are booming, with it uncommon if you take a walk in some of Britain’s forests without seeing one. This massive overpopulation is having a negative knock on effect both the younger regenerating woodland and the animals which nest upon it. With deer numbers on the rise, year upon year, the shoots of regenerating trees are being eaten by deer before they have a chance to mature. It is thought that alongside helping to control the population of deer by preying upon them, Lynx will also help in moving deer populations around the forest, keeping sectors with younger trees and shoots free of large herds of grazing deer, and thus allowing forests to regenerate.

Other possible consequences of reintroducing Lynx can be extrapolated from looking back at perhaps the most famous re-wilding example in history, the reintroduction of Wolves into Yellowstone back in 1995 . Wolves had a huge impact on the Yellowstone food system and the behaviour of animals in the park. Wolves caused their primary prey, Elk to become more mobile, freeing riparian (zones between land and a river/stream) zones from constant grazing. This allowed plants such as Willow to return in abundance, and in time created habitats for many species including beavers and moose. Wolves are also thought to be responsible for the changing  the behaviours of the Bears, which were previously the solitary apex predator in the park. Now, although Wolves were a slight digression, and Lynx aren’t likely to have a similarly dramatic effect in the UK, it is an interesting, and probably the most famous example of a successful re-wilding project to date.

In similar plans elsewhere in Europe, Lynx have been reintroduced to Germany and Switzerland, where they have successfully bred and have now begun to colonise other areas further from their initial ranges.

Lynx Rewilding UK
Wolves into Yellowstone has been one of the biggest success stories of the last few decades, can Lynx do the same? Image thanks to http://www.nathab.com

Supporters of the plan also believe that Lynx will bring substantial economic benefits to rural communities, however this is where I become a little dubious. Whilst the ecological arguments clearly stack up in favour of reintroducing Lynx, I find it hard to believe its reintroduction will bring in the “tens of millions of pounds” the report suggests. Whilst eco-tourism is rightly big business, it is a relatively new concept in the UK, with the majority of attention being focused on eco-tourism in more exotic habitats. Whilst I applaud trying to bring this eco-tourism to the UK itself, I find it hard to believe the reintroduction of Lynx will bring in that kind of money. Yes, I’m sure you will get the odd handful of cat enthusiast like me and I’m sure many of you reading who will happily head down for a weekend of two to try and catch a glimpse, however with just six animals being introduced over two forests, chances of a sighting will be slim to say the least.

As much as I like the idea, I can’t see handfuls of wildlife enthusiasts generating tens of millions of pounds for these rural communities. In addition, I imagine the introduced cats will be under the best protection possible. They will undoubtedly be released with GPS collars and surely measures will be taken to ensure disruption and interference from the general public is kept at a minimum?  If you do disagree with any of my points in the above paragraphs please do comment and let me know why! I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this matter as there seems to be a distinct lack of information about it.

I said at the outset of my post that I’d address both sides of the argument, and to avoid a completely biased article I’ll sign off with the some of the arguments against Lynx reintroduction. The majority of opposition for this study has come from the National Farmers Union here in the UK. Cats are opportunistic predators and farmers have a right to be worried about the welfare of their livestock, after all if our income was potentially at threat we would to be concerned. By assuming that Lynx will prey upon deer, you can also assume that the cats could prey upon sheep as well. After all, deer can run faster and are more “predator aware”, or at least less accustomed to having humans and a predator in their forests. If the Lynx had a choice between the difficulties of trying to stalk and chase a deer, or simply run into the farmers field a grab a sheep or lamb, it becomes quite clear what Lynx may do.

Farmers have highlighted the large losses of Sheep and Lambs experienced by farmers in Norway, where although much more forested, thousands of livestock are lost to wolves each year. Farmers acknowledge the larger amount of tree cover present in Norway, however by introducing Lynx and allowing trees to regenerate, in time the UK’s forests will see a much larger amount of tree cover than is currently present, making it even easier for Lynx to prey on Sheep. The Lynx Trust counters this by assuring GPS collars will be fitted to all released cats, which will enable their movements to be tracked, and any problem cats to be relocated.

The consultations for the project ended last month, and now English Heritage and Scottish Natural Heritage are the two bodies which decided whether the trial will go ahead. A decision is expected soon and the Lynx Trust hope to gain its license by the end of 2016, so watch this space, soon we could have a new apex predator roaming the UK’s forests.

Featured image thanks to www.ibtimes.com

 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. jovialspoon says:

    Great post, thank you. I am writing this from some distance away (Australia) so I can only speculate on the specifics of the UK forest situation. But having followed the Yellowstone wolf example closely, it seems likely there will be environmental benefits for your forests too. I also doubt the estimates of financial benefits, although it’s likely there will be some modest benefit.

    Here in Oz, we are having a rewilding discussion about the re-introduction of the Tasmanian Devil to the mainland. Its range was previously Australia-wide, but it was given its (English language) name after it went extinct on the mainland. It is thought its return may help stem our disastrous feral cat problem.

    I’ll be following your Lynx situation with interest.
    Cheers
    Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! Wow, I wasn’t aware of the discussion about reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil, that’s something I’ll certainly be following with interest! I’ve heard much made of the problem about Dingoes in Australia, but I also wasn’t aware of the feral cat problem, is that more of a concern than Dingoes at the moment?

      Like

  2. I don’t know…this sounds like such a complicated issue. Being a wild felid enthusiast I want to shout, “YES!” as loud as I can. But when I think about what happened in the US with wolves, I’m given cause to hesitate.

    I know the conditions in the UK now aren’t the same as they were in the western US in the 90’s. But there are some similarities. In the UK, as was the case in the US, it seems like the majority of the population is in favor of lynx reintroduction (please correct me if I’m wrong). But the farmers aren’t. So if lynx were reintroduced now, it might be taken as a slap in the face by farmers.

    That’s what happened with wolves in the US. The were reintroduced against the wills of local ranchers, and as a result wolves became a symbol of what some Americans call “government oppression.” As ranchers and hunters have increasing come to perceive themselves as marginalized, wolves have become ever more politicized. We’ve now reached a point where many government wolf management policies don’t even follow basic science, and in some places their populations are declining.

    I’d hate for the same thing to happen with lynx. So what I’d most like to see is for the trial to go ahead, but for the deciding bodies to carefully document their decision process. They should explicitly state how they took different parties’ opinions into account, and make the report freely available to the public. This might make their decision seem less biased, and hence may reduce the intergroup tensions that lynx reintroduction will undoubtedly cause.

    I also think that if they decide to not run the trial, then conservation orgs should work hard to change farmers’ attitudes towards lynx. This might make it easier to reintroduce lynx in the future.

    To this end, I’m not sure economic arguments are the way to go. For one thing, the claims you mentioned seem to be exaggerated. The worst thing conservationists can do is make promises they can’t keep. I’ve also been reading some material on using values in conservation, and apparently even thinking in monetary terms can activate the same values that make people less likely to care about nature. So while financial arguments are sometimes necessary (particularly when dealing with governments), they should be used with caution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That was a really interesting comment, thanks Josh!

      Liked by 1 person

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