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Could deer control be managed by lynx?

Following reintroductions of sea eagles and the planned release of beavers next year, one leading conservationist has called for the reintroduction of the lynx into Scotland’s forests as a measure to control the deer population.

The question of whether the lynx should roam free once more was raised earlier this month at a major three-day conference on species and wildlife management, organised by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). In a speech to delegates at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Roy Dennis, director of the Highland Foundation for Wildlife, asked: “So when can the lynx come home? We know there’s loads of room. There’s lots of food. There’s lots of space for a big, viable population to return.”

The suggestion was met with some scepticism. Colin Galbraith, director of policy at Scottish Natural Heritage, told The Scotsman newspaper that the call may be a bit premature: “I think lynx is over the horizon. The people of Scotland have to get used to one mammal reintroduction, with the beaver. Let’s see how they do first.” While he did not rule out the possibility of lynx reintroductions, Prof Galbraith urged a cautious approach, saying “Let’s not delay things forever but let’s do things to minimise the risk in light of the evidence we have got.”

The proposal has the backing of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, who point to estimates that just one of the big cats could kill between 50 and 60 deer per year, helping to address concerns of overpopulation, particularly of roe deer. Like the wolf, the lynx is listed on Annex IV of the European Union’s Habitats and Species Directive, to which the UK Government is a party. The directive makes it a legal obligation for member European states to study the desirability of reintroducing certain threatened species on the basis that they form part of the natural heritage of the EU and the threats to them are often of a nature that crosses international borders.

Reintroduction of the lynx for whatever purpose, would inevitably be surrounded by controversy given the potential conflict with existing rural interests, notably farming. Five weeks ago, Roy Dennis addressed this conflict sharply, when he was quoted in a newspaper article on the subject saying, “I used to think that species could be reintroduced in a progressive way, but at the moment there seems to be a backlash because of arguments between the country and the conservation bodies.”

One man who arguably forms a part of the backlash against reintroductions is the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association chairman Alex Hogg. He is adamant that calls for the reintroductions of apex predators such as the lynx are a sideshow given the failure to address the dire situation affecting some of Scotland’s existing wildlife. In response to Roy Dennis’s call, he told “We should concentrate on looking after the wildlife we have rather than pandering to the egos of individual conservationists. The efforts to rescue the capercaillie, for instance, have proved to be worse than useless. Let’s get schemes like that right before we talk about introducing other species and adding even more pressures on farming and game management.”