Lynx: coming to a forest near you?
From the way that some newspapers have been reporting proposed reintroductions, you could be forgiven for thinking that a number of lynx have already been trapped, transported back to the UK and are in quarantine prior to their release.
“Wild lynx to be brought back to the British countryside” announced the Daily Telegraph on 26 May, the most bullish of headlines that all seemed to suggest proposed reintroductions are more than likely to happen.
This PR coup has been achieved in large part by the Lynx UK Trust, which says it has reached agreement with private landowners who would ‘host’ the founder populations in Grumack Forest, Aberdeenshire; Ennerdale in Cumbria; an area of Kielder Forest in Northumberland; and Thetford Forest in Norfolk. It is also looking at areas of Galloway in southern Scotland.
There’s a long way to go before any reintroductions take place (nothing has been submitted to licensing authorities yet), but the trust’s Steve Piper says there is no reason why the first lynx couldn’t be released within a year.
Others are more cautious. John Linnell, a scientist who studies lynx in Norway, warns that bringing predators back to a landscape where they have been absent for a considerable period will be a long-term and complicated procedure.
So what are the challenges, and just how realistic are plans to bring lynx back to the UK?
STEP ONE: SOURCE THE LYNX
Lynx released into Britain are likely to come from the Carpathian Mountains, says Steve Piper of the Lynx UK Trust. “It’s the largest population in Europe, which means we can get a healthy genetic mixture into the reintroduced population, while also not causing any problems for the population they come from,” he says. “We are in the early stages of talking to authorities in Eastern Europe.”
Cats will be caught in baited traps, then kept for an as yet undetermined quarantine period. The plan is to release four to six lynx at each location.
John Linnell, of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, says that there are no issues, in principle, with taking lynx from healthy populations and attempting to start a new population elsewhere.
STEP TWO: RELEASE THE LYNX
Lynx will adapt quickly to their new environment. They will find plenty of food on their doorsteps, with roe deer being their prey of choice, along with red deer calves and muntjac in Norfolk. “None of these estates are fenced, so the lynx will be free to roam,” says Piper. “You’ve got high prey densities, so to begin with they are likely to keep their ranges pretty narrow.” All animals will be fitted with radio-collars and monitored.
But John Linnell warns, “You don’t release lynx into a small estate, you release them into a country. Within a few days or weeks, they will have travelled long distances. Even if you monitor them for a year or two with the radio-collars, the batteries will go flat. They will start reproducing – then what?”
Linnell says the smallest home range for any lynx in Europe is 100–120 square kilometres, which probably means that Thetford Forest’s 190 square kilometres could accommodate at most two to four animals.
STEP THREE: MANAGE THE REINTRODUCTION
There’s never been a documented case of a Eurasian lynx attacking a human or even a dog, and they won’t begin to behave like foxes and start going through our bins, says Piper. They will attack and kill sheep, but data from elsewhere in Europe suggests losses will be low: about 0.5 sheep per lynx per year. The Lynx UK Trust will provide full compensation to farmers.
Lynx evolved with wildcats, so a reintroduction in Scotland shouldn’t have an impact. “Genetically pure wildcats are twice the size of domestic ones and they won’t be cowed by a lynx,” Piper adds.
Linnell says that even if released lynx aren’t taking huge numbers of sheep, there will be claims they are. “Investigators will need to become expert at looking at a half-decomposed sheep carcass and working out what was responsible.” This will require institutional support, Linnell adds, and could prove to be hugely expensive.
STEP FOUR: MONITOR THE LONG-TERM BENEFITS
One impact of bringing back lynx will be forest regeneration, says Piper, though it will take a long time to get deer numbers under control. “Deer will be forced to move around more, so their browsing won’t be concentrated in a few favoured spots.” This, in turn, could benefit species such as capercaillie in Scotland.
Farmers in East Anglia lose an estimated £3 million of crops to deer annually, so lynx could save them money. There are also possibilities for ecotourism, like the model established in the Harz Mountains in Germany.
But Linnell says that the impact of lynx will be subtle, at least in the short term. “They won’t create a landscape of fear, like wolves do,” he explains. “For an animal being hunted by a lynx, it’s sudden death, so I wouldn’t expect much change in deer behaviour. Plus they will only be making a kill every four or five days. Is anything even going to notice them? Any ecosystem benefits will take a long time.”
He nevertheless supports lynx reintroduction: “The fact that they may not trigger rapid forest regeneration does not mean you should not release them.”
WHERE MIGHT THE REINTRODUCTIONS OCCUR?
Kielder Forest, Northumberland A large conifer forest of 620 square kilometres, regarded as offering some of the best UK habitat for lynx. Already a stronghold for ospreys and red squirrels.
Grumack Forest, Aberdeenshire A 140ha conifer plantation. It is too small to accommodate lynx on its own, but the Forestry Commission owns extensive woodland to the east.
Thetford Forest, Norfolk A roughly 190 square kilometre patchwork of conifers, broadleaved deciduous trees and heathland, home to both native deer species (red and roe), as well as non-native muntjac.
Ennerdale, Cumbria A valley in the Lake District with an existing rewilding project that aims to clear conifers, plant juniper and hazel, reduce sheep numbers and remove physical boundaries.
Galloway, southern Scotland The Lynx UK Trust is talking to landowners in two areas. With thriving populations of red and roe deer, the 780 square kilometres of Galloway Forest Park offers great potential.