The wild cat’s reintroduction could help control deer populations in forests, writes Dr Terry Mabbett.

BRITAIN is riding a wave of rewilding, with animals last seen centuries ago now in a rolling programme of reintroduction. One of the latest up for reintroduction is the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), which became extinct in the country during the early medieval period, with the best guess being 1,300 years ago.

The target is Scotland, which ecologists claim could support 400 of these once-native felines in the forests north of the Central Belt. Interest was heightened by Scottish ecologist Dr David Hetherington in his book The Lynx and Us.

Arguments for rewilding follow two lines of thought. The first is that the candidate animal was here as a native species and its presence should be restored, essentially for posterity. Second is that extinction of the species upset the balance of biodiversity and its reintroduction would help restore equilibrium.

Dr Hetherington says lynx would bring tangible benefits to the Scottish environment through natural deer control without impacting significantly on existing threatened species such as wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) and the capercaillie or woodgrouse (Tetrao urogallus). Ironically, the recovering population of pine marten (Martes martes), praised for preying on grey squirrels, is said to be threatening capercaillie.

Natural deer control would bring much relief to landowners and foresters by reducing deer herbivory on trees and the collateral damage to associated fauna and flora. Lynx reintroductions have been carried out in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Dr Hetherington acknowledges lynx would probably prey on sheep, which is why many farmers oppose the idea. The National Farmers Union Scotland says lynx attacks on livestock are the main reason why many farmers in Norway are giving up on the sheep industry. However, the vast majority of attacks on sheep in European countries occur where animals are being grazed in woodland. Since sheep in Scotland are mainly grazed in open habitats, this may not be a problem.

Research on 200 lynx in Switzerland shows 20 to 50 farm animals killed per year, but 12,500 roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and chamois deer (Rupicapra rupicapra) were predated over the same period, together with wild boar. With lynx reintroduction appearing good value for money, Dr Hetherington suggested farmers whose sheep are killed could be offered financial compensation.

Deforestation was the main cause of the lynx’s extinction in Britain, but with Scotland now undergoing large-scale reforestation and experiencing substantial growth in its deer population there will be ample habitat and prey for lynx to thrive on. Reintroduction of lynx looks beset with the same old problem that plagues many rewilding programmes, in that one man’s pet is another’s pest.

In 2018, the Lynx UK Trust proposed the return of six Eurasian lynx to Kielder Forest in Northumberland under a five-year trial plan submitted to Natural England, which would provide advice to DEFRA. Plans were that lynx would roam across this border country on both English and Scottish soil.

Sheep farmers predictably raised fears that lynx would attack livestock, though the Lynx Trust claimed all of the landowners responsible for the 700 km² where the animals could be introduced had given their backing to the proposal. This was disputed by the National Sheep Association.

The Lynx Trust said it would be an exceptionally rigorous and scientifically led reintroduction trial using cutting-edge technology to monitor the wild felines. They offered to help sheep farmers arrange insurance against attacks on their flocks.

In the event, the bid was rejected by Michael Gove, Environment Secretary at the time. He said government advisers had concluded the plan “lacked the necessary depth and vigour to provide confidence it would succeed.” Citing Natural England advice, Mr Gove added the plan “did not demonstrate sufficient local support . . . and the socio-economic benefits of the trial were unclear”.

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said: “We strongly believe this is the right decision on ecological, social and agricultural grounds.”

However, reintroduction of the lynx should not be written off just yet. The Lynx Trust said it was “disappointed” and would “go through the feedback in detail” before submitting a revised application in 2019. The Trust’s chief scientific advisor, Dr Paul O’Donoghue, said it was “confident” it could satisfy all Mr Gove’s reservations with its second application. “To put all this in context, there were several failed licence applications for beavers before they were eventually reintroduced, so this is only the beginning of our journey,” he added.

This follow-up application will give the Eurasian lynx a second bite at the buck, with the Lynx Trust apparently hedging its bets with three proposed sites in Scotland. Groups of six lynx would be reintroduced into the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park region, 30 miles north of Glasgow; the Glen Feshie region next to Cairngorms National Park; and the Kintyre Peninsula region of Argyll and Bute.