The ongoing saga of the young lynx that escaped from Dartmoor Zoo and has yet to be recaptured means that – for the moment at least – there is at least one of these medium-sized cats roaming the British countryside.
But a solitary lynx that has accidentally found freedom on the edge of Dartmoor does not make for a reintroduction of the species, which was last genuinely living wild in the UK some 1,500 years ago. That, however, could change some time in the next couple of years.
Following several months of consultations, a group of conservationists who have formed the Lynx UK Trust say they have identified Kielder Forest – spanning the north of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders – as the most suitable place in which to release these medium-sized cats into the wild.
So, what were the factors that made Kielder stand out from the other areas (Cumbria and Norfolk in England and Argyll & Bute and Aberdeeshire in Scotland) considered by the trust?
A report identified three key factors:
- Kielder is a large area of continuous forest that – on the whole – does not have sheep farms. It covers 650km2 and is England’s largest forest, and could support an estimated 51 individual lynx.
- The Kielder area is economically deprived, and the report suggested that – over a period of 25 years – the presence of lynx there would be worth nearly £30 million in increased tourist visits.
- It has a low human density (though lynx pose no risk to people) and there is an absence of threats, such as roads and railways, to the animals.
The trust’s chief scientific advisor Dr Paul O’Donoghue said they had thoroughly investigated what each site had to offer. “Balancing up the many factors, Kielder has continually stood out as a place where lynx can flourish and bring huge benefits to the local community,” he added.
The next step, the trust said, was to hold an informal event in the area to meet and talk with local people about what the reintroduction of lynx could mean for them.
The Eurasian lynx is native to Britain and is believed to have gone extinct here around 500 AD. Numbers also declined considerably in the rest of Europe, to the extent that there were thought to be just 700 left in the 1940s.
Since then, conservation efforts – including many reintroductions – have seen the species reclaim some of its former range and numbers rise to an estimated 8,000.
One of the benefits of bringing lynx back to the UK, say supporters of the idea, is they would predate deer (mainly roe deer) and naturally limit numbers – deer are too numerous in many parts of the UK, because of the absence of natural predators, which restricts the natural regeneration of woodland.
Some experts have questioned how much impact lynx would have, however. John Linnell, a lynx expert who studies them in Norway, told BBC Wildlife that they do not change deer behaviour, in the way wolves do, because they are unobtrusive and hunt by ambushing their prey.
“Plus they will only be making a kill every four or five days,” he said. “Is anything even going to notice them? Any ecosystem benefits will take a long time.”