We need to have an honest debate about the reality of reintroducing large predators to the UK, instead of hastily chasing a utopian myth says Alasdair Mitchell

People who favour reintroducing large predators tend to be idealistic. There’s nothing wrong with idealism. The problems come when it collides with reality. In the context of predator reintroduction, this means the practicalities of living in an environment shared with humans. I am always struck by how few ardent greenies actually live in the countryside. Why is this? (Read more on the problems with rewilding.)

Reintroducing large predators

Instead of being honest and admitting that sea eagles, lynx and wolves might present a conflict with existing land uses, certain lobbyists try to sell the idea that we’ll all be better off and nobody will lose. A wonderful equilibrium — the balance of nature — will be restored. The land will heal itself. Livestock farming will segue into ecotourism, with cheerful, rosy-cheeked rustics ladling organic yoghurt into wooden bowls for paying ecotourists who have arrived on bicycles.

In truth, a lot of greenies despise people involved in farming, forestry and fieldsports. They want the countryside to be reserved for nature and untrammelled public recreation. Naturally, they don’t advertise their antipathy to private property; that might be counterproductive.

Lynx and sheep farms

I am probably unique in owning a sheep farm yet not being opposed to the reintroduction of lynx to nearby Kielder Forest. On the one hand, I don’t believe nocturnal cats will provide much of a tourism boost. On the other, I don’t think the lynx will lay waste to sheep farming. (Read more on how to stop your dog chasing sheep.)

Mind you, I also say a fast and fair compensation scheme must be in place before a single uber-moggie is tipped out of a crate, with lethal control as a backstop. But above all, what we really need is some honesty in the debate, from all sides.

Overselling the myth

There are signs that this is beginning to dawn. An article in the Guardian cited concerns that “people may be overselling the myth”. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 had been credited with triggering a cascade of environmental goodies. The elk population dropped from 19,000 to 6,000, where it stabilised. The creation of a “landscape of fear”, where prey animals don’t linger, led to the resurgence of willow and aspen thickets along river valleys, to the benefit of beavers and a host of other species. This utopian narrative was lapped up. A 2014 YouTube video called How Wolves Change Rivers has been viewed 43 million times.

But now researchers are re-examining the data and it isn’t so clear-cut. Nature is chaotic and the impact of predators may vary from place to place. In retrospect, a certain amount of confirmation bias is evident in the early Yellowstone studies. The Guardian quotes a researcher saying: “Scientists are just humans, and wolf reintroductions were such a popular thing. It’s human nature, it’s not unusual that people jump to these conclusions.”

I like big predators. I like to know they’re out there, even if I can’t see them. I have deliberately chosen to go hunting and camping in parts of the world where there are big, snarly things. I understand the attraction. But let’s be realistic about the potential benefits and risks of reintroducing large predators to man-made landscapes.