Friday, 29 July 2016

The lynx are coming!

PREDATORY CAT TO BE REINTRODUCED TO SCOTLAND?


A lynx with its tufted ears showing
Bernard Landgraf/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0
It's beginning to look possible that the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) is going to be brought back to Scotland after an absence of 1300 years.

Native to Britain and once widespread here the lynx is one of those species which Man drove to extinction in the UK many, many years ago but now the Lynx UK Trust is set to return this medium-sized feline to the Scottish countryside.

This intended introduction is a 5-year trial and if it gets the go-ahead from the relevant government agencies it is planned to release 10 individuals - 5 male and 5 female - into a large forested area on the Scottish-English border.

There are also some public consultations still to take place but so far approval rates from those consultations which have already taken place have been up to 91% - it seems that the public have overcome any reservations they may have had about the introduction of a large predator back into the countryside!


The location

The favoured area is the Kielder Forest which is actually mostly in England not Scotland but much of the northern boundary of the forest park closely follows the border between Scotland and England and part of the park spills over into southern Scotland and it is this border area which is being considered as the primary release site.

At 250 square miles (three-quarters of which is covered by forest) Kielder Forest is owned by the Forestry Commission and is the largest man-made woodland in England. It was chosen over several other possible locations because it is sparsely-populated, has few roads, no railway and doesn't have much in the way of sheep or other livestock farming but it does have a large population of Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus - a smaller cousin of the red deer). They are pretty much the same size as the lynx and would make ideal prey for them - they just love a decent venison dinner!


The cat

The Eurasian Lynx is a medium-sized cat with an average adult male being about 4 feet in length, standing 2½ feet high and weighing in at around 60lbs - about the same size as the average German Shepherd dog. The females are slightly smaller than the males. They are a solitary species which carves out a territory the size of which varies according to the availability of prey. They favour dense forest into which they can disappear and hide from all human contact (wise creatures!). In fact, they are so good at hiding that they are rarely seen and are known in parts of their range as the ghost cat. Footprints and the remains of their prey are normally the only signs that they are present. It is Europe's second largest land predator (after the brown bear) and is quite capable of bringing down a deer twice its own size.

Worldwide there are reckoned to be about 50,000 Eurasian Lynx. They are a protected species through much of their range and their conservation status is ''least concern'' (IUCN). Most of them are in Russia, China, Scandinavia and eastern Europe with a sprinkling to be found throughout western Europe - and eventually also possibly in the UK!  As you can see from the photographs the lynx is an attractive-looking feline with a spotted coat, a short stubby tail and those distinctive tufted ears.

Those individuals which come to Scotland will be captured wild specimens which are likely to come from several sources to ensure genetic diversity - Scandinavia, Germany and Eastern Europe being the most likely sources of suitable specimens. In the wild lynx will live for 10-15 years and are capable of producing up to four kittens once a year and with no competition and nothing to predate on them it is highly likely that they will thrive in Kielder.


A Eurasian lynx showing its attractive spotted coat and tufted ears
mpiet/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 2.0 Germany

The argument for

Humans were responsible for the disappearance of the lynx so do we have a moral responsibility to put them back? Maybe - but there is also a practical reason why we should.

There has been much debate over the years about reintroducing various species which have been wiped out by Man back into ecosystems. The current thinking amongst those who are in favour of doing so is that it is simply a restoration of the balance of nature which Man, through ignorance or greed, has destroyed and doing so has allowed other species to proliferate beyond sensible levels. This ''restoration of balance'' was convincingly seen when the wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the USA in 1995.

Hunted and persecuted to extinction in Yellowstone in the mid-1920s their loss allowed their main prey species, the elk, to spread to such an extent that much of the park was overgrazed and the whole ecosystem was damaged. The elk no longer had to worry about predation by wolves and could simply graze an area bare and then move on to fresh pastures. This resulted in the decline of certain species of tree and beaver became scarce. Other species also suffered. Bringing back the wolf redressed the balance and led to other unexpected benefits. The elk could no longer afford to be complacent and were constantly moving around to avoid the wolves. Overgrazed areas recovered and tree species began to thrive once more and beavers, and others, returned to the park. This showed how important a top predator was for the health of an ecosystem.

A single roe deer standing in a field
Jojo/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0
In Kielder Forest the roe deer population is larger than the land can comfortably support and they are culled regularly in an attempt to keep their population within manageable levels.

Reintroducing 10 lynx isn't really going to have any direct effect on the total number of roe deer in Kielder but it will have the effect of making them ''look over their shoulder'' in the same way the elk in Yellowstone had to relearn to do, keeping them on the move and negating any overgrazing effects on particular areas and if the trial is successful more lynx may follow - and then the roe deer can really start to worry!

Admittedly, the situation in Kielder isn't the same as it was in Yellowstone but it is hoped that the reintroduction of lynx to Kielder Forest will have a similar effect on the environment as the reintroduction of the wolf had on Yellowstone National Park - a ''renormalisation'' of the ecosystem back to something resembling what it was before Man started to interfere. The exact effects of any reintroduction will, of course, only become apparent with time.

The Lynx UK Trust also believe that reintroducing lynx will be of great financial benefit to the local community. Wildlife and eco-tourism is big business and similar introductions elsewhere in Europe have resulted in visitor centres and guided tours along with camera traps and well-positioned observation hides bringing much-needed income into rural areas.

The argument against

Livestock: Understandably, there is some concern in certain quarters about reintroducing a large predator back into our countryside. Sheep farmers in particular fear that lynx will start to prey on their flocks and indeed a herd of sheep fenced-in to a small area would be an easy target for a hungry lynx but this isn't likely to happen in Kielder. Lynx are a forest animal and sheep are creatures of the open moorland - and never the twain shall meet! That's not to say that lynx would never take sheep but consider this: in the UK it is estimated that some 18,000 sheep and other farm animals are killed or injured by dogs each year (National Farmers Union). Lynx aren't going to take anywhere near that number but any loss is unacceptable to the farming community and a compensation scheme has been suggested for sheep losses which can be proved to be due to lynx predation. Such schemes operate successfully in other countries where wildlife comes into conflict with livestock or arable farming (one has been set up on the Isle of Mull as a response to the threat to lambs from the white-tailed sea eagle).

A red squirrel eating a nut
Peter Trimming/Wikipedia CC-BY 2.0
Native wildlife: Although roe deer are the preferred prey of the lynx they do take other animals as well. Kielder Forest is a major stronghold in England of the red squirrel. 10 lynx aren't going to devastate the squirrel population but any loss of Britain's native squirrel is to be regretted and if lynx numbers increase red squirrels and other native species may find themselves under pressure and if the lynx ever make it to northern Scotland they could pose a threat to the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), the largest member of the grouse family, and the Scottish wildcat both of which are forest dwellers like the lynx and both of which are threatened with extinction in Scotland.

Threat to people and pets: No - lynx do no attack people, at least not as a matter of course. It is possible that a lynx which is sick, old and hungry may take whatever easy prey offers itself but that isn't going to be a poodle out for a walk with its owner!

The Law of Unintended Consequences: Sod's Law - ''If It Can Go Wrong It Probably Will'' No matter how well planned it may be there will always be unexpected and surprising developments. What about introduced lynx spreading outwith the area they were originally introduced to? Kielder Forest is a big enough place with sufficient prey species to accommodate quite a few lynx but if the lynx population grows sufficiently large then the pressure on young lynx to strike out and find territory of their own may mean that some will attempt to leave the park and set up home elsewhere.

Actually, this probably isn't very likely. Kielder is isolated from any other large area of forest and a lynx would have to be very desperate indeed to expose itself to open moorland (and roads and people) for however long it takes for it to reach a suitable stretch of forest big enough and with enough prey species for it to survive. In addition, the adults which are released will all have radio collars fitted and their every movement will be tracked by satellite. They couldn't leave Kielder without it being known. Mind you, tracking devices do fail and there is always the possibility that one will slip through the net and disappear into the hills - and don't forget any kittens which may be born. They may be both unknown and untraceable . . . never forget Sod's Law!


Future reintroductions

Given that this trial goes ahead, that it is successful and the lynx thrive and don't cause any major problems how likely is it to be repeated elsewhere? Estimates of up to £15,000 per lynx per annum to the local economy of a reintroduction area have been produced and if all goes well and the communities in Kielder see benefits in terms of jobs and income and if the environment can be shown to have been improved by the reintroduction of the lynx I would say that it's quite likely to be repeated!

Kielder Forest was one of several sites in the UK which were considered as a possible release site for the lynx. One site was in the Aberdeen area so could we see further reintroductions of wild lynx to Scotland? And maybe not just the lynx? There have been mutterings in the glens in recent times about reintroducing the wolf back into the Scottish Highlands but that would be a whole different kettle of fish! Lynx are solitary hunters whilst wolves hunt in packs - and there are instances of wolves attacking people (and their poodles!). The public perception of wolves as dangerous to humans will probably forbid any reintroduction for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, brown bears are unlikely ever to be brought back to Scotland but reintroductions of benign (to humans) species are quite possible. Some have already happened - the recent successful reintroductions to Scotland of the beaver and the white-tailed sea eagle in particular have shown that it is possible. Personally, I believe that sensible reintroductions of lost species can only enhance the experiences of those who encounter them on a walk in a wild area or simply see them whilst driving past in their car. It reminds us that, no matter how much technology we surround ourselves with, the world is still basically a wild place.


Conclusion

A lynx in a snow-covered forest
Aconcagua/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported
The pressure has been building for some time and it looks like this reintroduction of the lynx to Kielder Forest will happen. It isn't yet a done deal but all the signs are promising. If all goes as the Lynx UK Trust hope then the earliest possible date for the arrival of the first cats is spring next year (2017) but that is an optimistic hope and it's likely to take a while longer.

That would be no bad thing - such a move should not be rushed. Public doubts and the doubts of the farming community should be addressed and allayed as much as possible. There will always be those who are opposed but also there will always be those who are in favour of the reintroduction of long-lost species.

The trick is to reach a consensus on how, when and why to do it but any reintroduction of creatures once common in Scotland but wiped out by Man should be carefully considered and only carried out if there is an environmental reason for doing so. Any other reason would be simple vanity and that would be very wrong!


Sources: Some information from Wikipedia plus in-text links.
NOTES: Dr David Hetherington, Ecology Advisor at Cairngorms National Park Authority has written a very interesting essay on the lynx with particular reference to its reintroduction into areas in which it once freely roamed and human reactions to it - Could we live with the lynx? is well-worth reading; and a commercial company has produced a cost-benefit analysis on the financial case for its introduction (on behalf of the Lynx UK Trust).