In the last few years the concept of rewilding, restoring natural habitats and processes and exploring possibilities for reintroduction of lost species, has risen in the conservation world. There are extreme opinions on both sides of the debate. Some projects in the UK have already begun, particularly in the Scottish highlands, where overgrazed glens are being replanted and deer populations culled. Ecological processes need to be restored to maintain habitats; keystone species such as the Beaver can do this, although conflicts can arise in more human influenced environments. To allow woodland regeneration to take place with minimal damage and disturbance, many argue an apex predator is needed to control herbivores and change the consistency of their grazing behaviours. Unanimously it is agreed that the best candidate to do this is the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx Lynx). An ambush predator adapted to live in forest habitat and also a solitary animal, this means that the likelihood and severity of any potential livestock attacks would be lower than Bears or Wolves.
The ‘Lynx UK Trust’, an independent Community Interest Company, launched into the public eye in 2015 announcing their intention to begin consultations and licence applications to commence trial releases at several sites. Whilst raising a great deal of awareness and dealing with social and national media very well so far in my opinion, their early approach was perhaps a little over enthusiastic. Things have since simmered down, with a sensible approach of national then local consultations, with one initial trial site rather than six. Whether this application is successful or not, I hope and believe that a trial reintroduction will happen in the not too distant future.
Recently, the National Sheep Association released, with much fanfare, a report on the wider consequences of Lynx reintroduction. In fairness this seems sensible given that sheep farmers would be the group at risk from potential conflict. Predation rates in other countries vary, so it is worth analysing the reasons why and which might be applicable to the UK, on which opinions vary, although the only way to truly find out would be to have a trial reintroduction. Having gone through the report, it does raise some interesting points and questions, but also has some flaws which are worth looking at.
The first major flaw is that the report doesn’t seem to address the trial, instead focusing on a seemingly overnight full reintroduction scenario. What would differ in a trial? It would cover a relatively small area, involve six monitored animals and be under heavy scrutiny, for a scientific study. If it doesn’t work out then the licence would require the Lynx to be recaptured and probably released abroad. Therefore no disastrous level of damage would be likely and a compensation scheme would be in place. Anecdotal evidence features in the report, showcasing a farming couple in Gloucestershire, on a case where they alleged a ‘big cat’ had taken sheep over a number of years. Whilst undoubtedly distressing, there is no concrete proof of a big cat in the area, it could have been from a multitude of possible species and would have been an illegally released animal from captivity with limited hunting skills, therefore far more likely to predate on livestock. The trial proposal would use animals taken from the wild.
A comparison with Raven attacks on sheep lacked any real relevance, whilst heading into game bird predation concerns is stepping away from the National Sheep Association’s remit, maybe influenced from other sectors. Capercallie population impacts are not supported by evidence from Europe and as long as trial sites are away from their current UK range it would not be an issue. Capercallie do not occur on sheep pasture so why are they in the report? The guard dog case study was from the USA and focused on Wolves and Coyotes, whereas an example from Europe where they are used in areas where Lynx predation does occur on livestock would have been far more appropriate.
We also have to remember that whilst sheep farming is a major land-use, it is not the only land use. Lynx could be beneficial to crop farming and forestry through the displacement and reduction of Deer. Scotland is also obligated to plant 100 000 hectares of new woodland by 2022, providing a large amount of potential new habitat, a figure not including conservation planting projects. Another anti-Lynx argument, not fielded in the report, is that Lynx would devastate the Scottish Wildcat population. With no evidence of this from any of the countries where the Lynx and European Wildcat co-exist, studies showing predation to be incredibly rare, this seems like a desperate argument with no real substance. Common sense suggests that two animals with large territories and different prey bases won’t come into contact often. With field projects currently carrying out excellent practical conservation work on wildcats, in around ten years we will hopefully have stable populations in multiple areas meaning we could reintroduce the Lynx with confidence.
In terms of tourism, I think it is hard to calculate the exact the revenue in the long term, as the trial period would undoubtedly create an increased level of interest. However, it is certainly plausible that local people could run tours looking at field signs of Lynx and other wildlife as a part of a wider income. There are also hides open for tourism in Poland and Estonia with proven records of Lynx sightings, showing that it can be possible. Visitor centres showcasing captive Lynx, employing local people and selling local produce are certainly viable, as many nature reserve visitor centres demonstrate. The loss of all our apex predators, and with it a major part of our natural heritage making the countryside ever poorer, should be a source of embarrassment in the UK, especially with the progress made in mainland Europe. Surely a progressive approach from the sheep farming representative bodies would be to work with a trial to explore the issues around reintroduction rather than to fight against it creating a divisive ‘us against them’ mentality. I would also like to see more major conservation charities support licensed trials of Lynx reintroduction, standing by a view is infinitely better than sitting on the fence.
References and Further Reading
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pni0Ycb_O8 – a live studio debate on Lynx reintroduction providing lots of interesting points on both sides.
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