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Bring back the missing lynx

Mention the idea of reintroducing a large carnivore to the British landscape, and perhaps, unsurprisingly, you will cause a number of eyebrows to be raised. But in the case of the Eurasian lynx the suggestion might not be as ridiculous as first imagined and could even produce some unexpected benefits.

It is hard to say with certainty when the lynx became extinct in Britain, but radio carbon-dating of bones discovered in the Craven area of the Yorkshire Dales proves that this shy feline was still hunting in these islands between 150 and 450 AD. Intriguingly, linguistic evidence suggests that individuals of the species were still being observed in the Scottish Highlands in medieval times, added to which, the Old English word “lox”, meaning “lynx”, remained in common usage throughout this period.

Standing approximately 28in at the shoulder, and with an adult male weighing between 40lb and 66lb, the Eurasian lynx is the largest of all lynx species, and has a range extending throughout Europe, Asia, Scandinavia and Russia. A true forest dweller, this secretive creature is largely nocturnal, and is known to maintain hunting territories varying between eight and 174 sq miles, depending on prey availability. It is when one considers the variety of quarry consumed by the lynx, that its potential for controlling certain troublesome British species becomes apparent.

A carnivorous diet
Preferring to stalk and ambush its prey in the cover of dense woodland, the diet of the Eurasian lynx includes roe deer, rabbits, hares and carrion. More interestingly, this forest cat regularly feeds upon pine marten, badgers and a significant number of foxes. With a daily dietary requirement of 2.4 to 4.4lb of meat, it could take an adult lynx several days fully to consume the carcase of a large prey animal.

It is an undeniable fact that Britain’s badger population has reached a level higher than ever previously recorded. Some insist that the numbers of this protected species are now out of control, with the resultant predation upon ground-nesting birds being quite unacceptable. The fox – both urban and rural – now finds itself in the role of apex predator in these islands, and is the bane of gamekeeper and shepherd alike. The pine marten is experiencing a meteoric rise in the forests of the North, and has the potential to pose a serious threat to the survival of both capercaillie and native red squirrel.

Redressing an imbalance
Not for a moment would one suggest that lynx ought to be released into sleepy Sussex or the Cotswolds, but if reintroduced into forested areas of the Scottish Highlands, Southern Uplands and the border country of the north of England, might this once native feline not help to redress an imbalance which is developing there?

It is difficult to deny that high densities of roe deer retard the natural regeneration of native woodland and that such woodland provides habitat for struggling populations of both capercaillie and blackgrouse. In addition, a study carried out in the north-east of Scotland recorded that pine martens were responsible for 30 per cent of all predation of capercaillie nests. This protected mustelid also predates heavily on the native red squirrel, an embattled species which has already vanished from most of Britain.

Interestingly, research carried out in Alpine regions of Europe, suggests that even in areas where capercaillie and lynx coexist, the former rarely figures in the diet of the latter – roe deer is the preferred quarry.

As calls for the control of protected species always meet with howls of protest, might it be more acceptable to the general public if the numbers of troublesome and damaging predators were controlled by a reintroduced, once indigenous feline? Surely, the urban majority, who gain their knowledge of wildlife through a television screen, would find this approach much more acceptable than the use of “upsetting” traps and guns?

Naturally, gamekeepers and shoot owners will view the reintroduction of the lynx with considerable trepidation. Might this animal not be considered an ally, however, when it is discovered that through steady predation it could dramatically reduce the population of both foxes and mustelids within its territory? There might be a suspicion that the Eurasian lynx would take reared gamebirds, but once again, data proves this to be a rare occurrence.

Farmers, too, might be forgiven for seeing reintroduced lynx as a problem, but information gained from work carried out in the Swiss Alps and France’s Jura region shows that this predatory cat prefers not to hunt over open ground. Indeed, lambs feeding further than 200m from the forest edge were seldom ever preyed upon. The same could not be said of a hunting fox, whose numbers the lynx could again significantly reduce. The only marked predation upon sheep by lynx was recorded when the animals were grazed within forests, a situation that rarely occurs in the UK.

No human threat
Due to its light build, small stature and secretive nature, the Eurasian lynx poses no physical threat to humans, with reported attacks being unheard of. Those who doubt the suitability of northern Britain as an area for lynx reintroduction would do well to consider the findings of Aberdeen University’s lynx habitat analysis. It found that about 15,000 sq km of the Scottish Highlands could potentially support a population of 400 individual animals. A further 5,000 sq km of the Southern Uplands, connected to about 800 sq km in the north of England, could support a further 50 adult lynx.

Paul Lister, owner of the 25,000-acre Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Sutherland, has long expressed a desire to see lynx introduced to his specially enclosed Ardgay estate. So far Mr Lister’s dreams have failed to reach fruition, having encountered strong opposition from the hiking and rambling fraternity. Those who wish to walk the hills unimpeded have stated that fences erected to prevent the escape of reintroduced lynx – as well as wolves and bears – would deny ramblers access to the hill known as Carn Ban. This, in turn, would contravene “right to roam” legislation and, as such, would be illegal, no matter the lynx’s potential benefits to our ecosystem, or that the EC Habitats Directive obliges the UK to consider returning once-indigenous species to our landscape.

If those who live, work and seek recreation within areas of suitable lynx habitat can’t be convinced of the benefits of sharing their environment with a large predator, then this forest cat, which offers to correct an imbalance in our countryside, may never return to its former British range.