18th September 2020

Featured / Outdoors / Linus Hiscöx

The Reintroduction of the Lynx: The Emergence of a Predator

21 7 mins 1

LLinus Hiscöx discusses the reintroduction of the Lynx to the British Isles. The goal of species reintroduction is to establish a healthy and self-sustaining population to an area where it has been extirpated.
Recently there has been a considerate effort from conservationist reintroducing beavers, bison and other lost species to Britain. The lynx is a necessary predator that hasn’t roamed freely since the eighteenth century. Its reintroduction could be pivotal for land restoration, Linus explains how.

The Eurasian lynx stalked our forests up until the eighth century when continued human persecution and habitat loss eradicated the last of the species. These solitary big cats were hunted for sport, their fur and for fear of depredation on livestock; while huge areas of their woodland habitat were systematically destroyed to make room for agricultural expansion. Now, almost 1,400 years later, the lynx could roam the UK once more.

For almost 400 years the UK has been missing a vital component of its environment, an apex predator, and our ecosystems have duly suffered for it.

Linus Hiscöx

The reintroduction of extirpated species is central to the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan. Closely tied with rewilding, reintroductions aren’t so much an effort to return to a wilder past, but natural solutions for the modern world. They are viable and preferable remedies for major problems. Newly established beaver colonies across the UK are helping to reduce agricultural pollutants in our rivers and will diversify and increase wetland habitats. Pine martens relocated from Scotland to the Forest of Dean are paving the way for the return of the native red squirrel, and wild boar in Southern England are sustaining ecosystem to increase plant diversity and allow impoverished forests to regenerate.

The lynx, too, could be of great ecological importance to Britain.

For almost 400 years the UK has been missing a vital component of its environment, an apex predator, and our ecosystems have duly suffered for it. After the loss of the lynx in Britain, the wolf was the only top predator left until the last one was killed in Sutherlandshire in 1621. With the resulting ecological release, mesopredators and large herbivores were freed from predation and their populations have exploded.

Deer especially have profited from lack of a natural predator, with their population now at over two million, double what it was in 1999. With deer densities so high they quickly overgraze areas, reducing the productivity and biodiversity of the land and contributing to desertification and erosion. Furthermore, overgrazing prevents tree seedlings from establishing and thus woodlands from regenerating. Deer culls have been ineffective and costly, and do not represent a long-term solution – unlike the reintroduction of an apex predator.

With deer densities so high they quickly overgraze areas, reducing the productivity and biodiversity of the land and contributing to desertification and erosion.

Linus Hiscöx

The reintroduction of lynx could be pivotal for land restoration. Of course, the few lynx brought in would barely put a dent in the vast numbers of deer populating Britain, but this is not necessary.

With the emergence of a predator, deer would alter their behaviour; namely, more time would be spent on the move and less on grazing, and when grazing, more time would be spent on the look-out and less on actual feeding. These behavioural changes could have significantly beneficial consequences for surrounding flora.

With reduced grazing intensities overgrazing would be prevented, giving the diversity of plants a chance to thrive and increasing carbon storage capacity. Consequently, more habitat and food would be available for birds, insects, and small mammals. The forests, now silent in comparison, would come alive with wild frenzy and deafening chorus.

Efforts to bring back large carnivores near communities who have never lived with them are, however, fraught with difficulties. The stigma attached to predators where it concerns human safety is understandable, but in many cases unfounded – throughout recorded history, there have been no reported wild lynx attacks on humans across North America, Europe, or Asia.

 

A more realistic threat would be lynx depredation on livestock, and farmers across the UK have voiced their concerns. Again, understandable, but data from countries with already established lynx populations suggest that losses would be negligible; on average, each lynx across Europe kills less than one sheep a year. The vast majority of the areas in which lynx could be reintroduced – North of the Central Belt in the Scottish Highlands and the Kielder Forest just south of the border – contain no sheep (a lynx would be very unlikely to hunt for cattle) and the vast majority of sheep are grazed in open habitats, which lynx avoid. All the same, the Lynx UK Trust, a conservation group leading the reintroduction proposal, have already agreed on insurance cover to compensate those farmers who do lose livestock.

Nevertheless, the choice is in the hands of those who will be living alongside the lynx. Good conservation works with, and not in spite of, local communities.

Linus Hiscöx

However, any losses would be massively offset by the potential gains. The return of the lynx could generate over £10 million a year towards the rural economy through wildlife tourists and photographers, as was seen in the Harz mountains of northern Germany. We have a similar story to tell in the UK, where reintroduced white-tailed eagles on the island of Mull – once persecuted as vermin – are now fiercely guarded and highly valued by the islanders.

The 2019 State of Nature report found that 41% of UK species have seen significant declines in recent decades, there is no let-up for losses where it concerns our biodiversity. We must restore the ecological processes of which we have degraded or lost entirely. With no apex predator, the direct and indirect consequences will continue to impoverish our countryside flora and fauna.

Nevertheless, the choice is in the hands of those who will be living alongside the lynx. Good conservation works with, and not in spite of, local communities.

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Linus Hiscöx

Linus Hiscöx majored in Ecology at the University of British Columbia and is now obtaining his Master of Science degree at the University of Bristol, where he is studying Global Wildlife Health and Conservation. His interest in the natural world was born from a childhood of hanging in trees and digging for worms. He now has serious aspirations in wildlife conservation but can still be found digging for worms.

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