The UK has lost all of its top terrestrial carnivores. The lynx is a missing species that has been proposed for reintroduction but its restoration faces reticence from some corners. Here we discuss why Trees for Life emphatically supports lynx reintroduction.
The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is widely distributed and is found in forested areas across much of Europe and Russia. Adults stand about 70 cm at the shoulder and weigh between 10 and 35 kg, with females smaller than males. They are solitary, mainly nocturnal ambush hunters and feed on a variety of mammals and birds, with roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) being the most commonly taken prey. Females typically give birth to two or three kittens in May.
Lynx once roamed Britain from the south to north coast, but have been extinct since the Middle Ages. Massive deforestation over the centuries removed the cover that both the lynx and its prey required to survive and this, coupled with intense persecution by humans, is believed to have brought about their extinction. There are a number of reasons why Trees for Life believes lynx should be reintroduced.
Humans are responsible for eradicating the lynx, so many people believe, us included, that we have a moral responsibility to bring it back. Lynx reintroductions have been carried out in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Poland and the Czech Republic. Important lessons have been learned from these projects, and the UK remains one of the few countries that has not properly addressed the reintroduction of this native species.
We are required by the EU Habitats Directive to examine the desirability of reintroducing species which have been lost. World Conservation Union (IUCN ) guidelines state that the processes which caused the original extinction of a species must no longer be operating if it is to be considered for reintroduction and, in the case of the lynx, this is true. Deforestation was the main cause of the lynx’s extinction in Britain, but Scotland has been undergoing large-scale reforestation since the early 20th century and this, coupled with a substantial growth in deer populations, means that we now have both ample habitat and prey for lynx to thrive.
The main reason that we believe lynx should be reintroduced is because they play an important role in the Caledonian Forest ecosystem. Due to a complete absence of large carnivores in the UK, our deer populations have no natural predator to keep them in check, and now exist at higher densities than is ecologically sustainable. This has resulted in very heavy grazing and browsing in places and huge damage to our native forests. In Scotland, the lynx’s main prey would be roe deer; they would reduce or at least re-distribute these populations and ease the pressure on our remaining forests. This would encourage natural regeneration and promote a more diverse woodland structure, which in turn benefits other species.
The benefits of tourism
The reintroduction of the lynx could bring a big economic boost to rural areas of Scotland. Wildlife tourism is big business, and people are particularly drawn by large carnivores. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has brought an estimated extra $7-10 million annually in tourism revenue, while tourism to the Harz National Park in Germany has increased since the reintroduction of the lynx in 2000. Scotland itself has benefited from wildlife reintroductions; the restoration of sea eagles on Mull brings £5 million per year to the island and supports over 100 jobs.
Research by Dr. David Hetherington found that a viable population of lynx could exist in Scotland north of the Central Belt, incorporating much of the Highlands, with a smaller potential population in the Southern Uplands, extending across the English border into Kielder Forest. This combined habitat network could support a population of at least 450 lynx.
Although lynx are large carnivores, they do not pose any threat to humans. They are very secretive creatures and are rarely seen. Successful lynx reintroduction projects have seen the lynx restored to a number of human-modified landscapes of western and central Europe, most of which have far higher human population densities than the Scottish Highlands or Southern Uplands. They do not hunt in packs and there has never been a recorded instance in Europe of a lynx attacking a human.
It cannot be said that lynx would never take livestock. However, in its current European range, lynx depredation on domestic species is far less of an issue than that by other large carnivores such as wolves and bears. Cattle are far too big to be killed by lynx, and they rarely take calves. Sheep are a more likely target. However, the vast majority of attacks on sheep in European countries occur where sheep are grazed in woodland, and as sheep are mainly grazed in open habitats in Scotland, this is not likely to be a big problem.
Lynx are an important part of our native fauna and we strongly advocate their reintroduction, to help create a healthy, restored Caledonian Forest ecosystem.
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