Lynx and wolf may soon be roaming Britain's wild places again. Is it a good idea?

Creatures long ago hunted to extinction in Britain may soon be re-introduced to help fill the the predator vacuum they left. But has the landscape – and its occupants – changed too much to support them?

By Dominic Bliss
Published 16 Sept 2019, 13:57 BST
A Eurasian lynx feeds on a deer. Overpopulation of deer causing overgrazing is one of the ...
A Eurasian lynx feeds on a deer. Overpopulation of deer causing overgrazing is one of the ecological problems Britain faces after the extermination of predators such as lynx and wolves long ago. But can the modern countryside cope with their reintroduction?
Photograph by Blick Winkel, Alamy

Eurasian lynx used to stalk the forests of Britain. This magnificent cat’s greatest assets – a beautiful pelt, and sharp claws and teeth – were also tragically its curse. By around 700 AD our ancestors, either through sport, the fur trade or fear for the safety of their livestock, had hunted them to extinction. Now, a group of environmentalists wants to bring them back.

Lynx UK Trust hopes to transport six wild lynx (two males and four females) from Scandinavia and release them in the Kielder Forest, a 250-square-mile stretch of woodland in Northumberland. Here they would hunt and feed on the hundreds of roe deer that roam the region.

“Lynx is a beautiful, large predator which has the power to inspire people who otherwise don’t care about conservation,” says Paul O’Donoghue, a wildlife biologist and chief scientific advisor to the trust.

After a short period of acclimatisation in pens, the lynx would be released into the forest. Each would wear a collar containing a tracking device and a camera. “Lynx cam – a world first,” says O’Donoghue. “We will know where these animals are 24 hours a day. It’s all part of our scientific trial.”

Lynx UK Trust’s initial licence application was rejected by DEFRA in 2017 but O’Donoghue is convinced a second one (planned for late 2019) will be successful and that, by the middle of 2020, Kielder Forest will be echoing to the mewing and growling of lynx.

Eurasian lynx can reach up to 30kg. Successful reintroductions have taken place on the continent – but no official releases have yet been tried in the UK.
Photograph by Hemis, Alamy

The Lynx Effect

Aside from zoological interest, there are social benefits to having these big cats in Northumberland. O’Donoghue believes lynx-spotting could boost tourism enormously. “It will be the number one wildlife destination in Britain by an absolute mile,” he says confidently, pointing to a similar release of lynx in the Harz mountains of northern Germany where, according to a Lynx UK Trust study, the animals give a £12.5m boost to the local economy through tourism; even if they are rather shy.

“You might only get a glimpse of a lynx,” O’Donoghue says of the Kielder Forest project. “But there will be tourists using cafés, pubs, village shops, bed and breakfasts, hiring bikes, buying petrol. We estimate the snowball effect of just six lynx will be worth well over £10m a year to the rural economy.” 

The forest itself will benefit too, according to O’Donoghue. With no natural predators, the British deer population has exploded, and woodland has been overgrazed, even stripped of vegetation in areas. “Even a little overgrazing means a damaged, less abundant, less bio-diverse forest ecology,” says the trust.

The Kielder Forest, in Northumberland near the Scottish border, is the area conservationists have selected as the ideal site for a lynx release.
Photograph by Jordan Butters, Alamy

“A fear factor returns that keeps the deer herds moving, looking out for trouble, and that means they just graze very lightly on each patch of forest.”

Paul O’Donoghue, UK Lynx Trust

O’Donoghue explains how British deer have become semi-domesticated, grazing “like lazy cows”. “We are creating parkland pets,” he warns.

Throw a large predator into the mix and deer behaviour quickly changes. “A fear factor returns that keeps the deer herds moving, looking out for trouble, and that means they just graze very lightly on each patch of forest, spreading out their foraging across the whole area.”

In ecology they call it trophic cascade – where interactions between predators and prey alter entire eco-systems. Lynx hunting deer will eventually help forest vegetation regenerate, capturing carbon in the process. Introduce enough predators and the overall effect on carbon sequestration across the UK could be substantial. 

Wolf at the door

Another environmentalist who has latched onto this idea is Paul Lister, owner of Alladale Wilderness Reserve, a 23,000-acre rewilding project in the Scottish Highlands. So wild, in fact that he wants to release wolves onto his land. His plan is to purchase or partner with neighbouring land to create a fenced enclosure of 50,000 acres where two packs of wolves, each five to eight-strong, would hunt the existing deer. “Our deer population is wildly out of control,” he says.

Lister would charge tourists for wolf safaris, either on foot or in vehicles, “much like in Yellowstone National Park in America”. 

Landowner Paul Lister in Alladale Wilderness Reserve, his Scottish estate. His plan to populate Alladale with wolves follows his reintroduction of wild boar and elk.
Photograph by Simon Price, Alamy

“To see wolves in an environment where man exterminated them 300 years ago would be enough,” he adds. “But if you were fortunate to see a chase, well, even better.” He believes the resulting wildlife tourism could attract 20,000 visitors a year and boost the local economy by up to £10m.

Unlike the Northumberland lynx which would roam free, Lister’s wolves would be enclosed within a 2.5-metre-high electrified fence, with an overhang to deter even the most athletic of lupine escapes.

Lister has a few barriers of his own to overcome before his project gets the green light. In Scotland, universal access to land is protected by law, meaning he would require a legal exemption to erect fencing. He’s confident that, given the potential for tourism, he’ll get that exemption – eventually.

The reintroduction of wolves has always been controversial in the UK. Habitual pack animals, many believe they pose more of a threat than the typically solitary and furtive lynx.
Photograph by Mircea Costina, Alamy

Selective Rewilding?

The idea of rewilding the British Isles with species that once lived here is gaining traction. One charity leading the charge is Rewilding Britain. As well as lynx and wolf, it highlights wildcat, wild boar, beaver, eagle owl, goshawk, great bustard, night heron, Dalmatian pelican, white stork and white-tailed eagle as examples of animals which have either recently been reintroduced or which could realistically stage a comeback.

The white-tailed eagle is a great example. Hunted to extinction in the 1800s, it was reintroduced to Scotland in the 1970s, and to the Isle of Wight earlier this year. With a wingspan up to 2.4 metres, it is the largest bird of prey in the UK.

Then there’s the European wildcat. This species almost died out but still survives in small numbers in northern and eastern Scotland, where complications have seen it interbreeding with domestic cats. One conservationist is doing his utmost to bring the species back to southern Britain, starting in the West Country.

At his farm near Launceston, in Devon, Derek Gow has four males, three females and four kittens born this summer. He plans to breed up to 40 kittens a year and is planning trial releases into the wild within the next four years where he expects these felids to prey on rabbits and squirrels. 

A white-tailed eagle off the coast of Mull, Scotland. It's sometimes called the sea eagle, given its preference for fish.
Photograph by Our Wild Life Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

“When you look at wildlife spectacles that survive on these islands, it’s bloody little and it’s bloody limited,” he says. “Introducing wildcats would be good for tourism on Exmoor and the North Devon coast, especially as other land uses fall away post-Brexit with the withdrawal of [European Union] farm subsidies.”

With so much tooth and claw involved, understandably, not everyone is welcoming these new immigrants with open arms. Sheep farmers in Northumberland are particularly worried about the threat from lynx. After all, these cats can grow up to 1.3 metres long and weigh as much as 30kgs. 

Eleanor Phipps works for the National Sheep Association. “Our primary concern with the lynx is that sheep present a very easy target for them to prey on, as sheep are kept in an enclosed area,” she says. “We also know, because of issues such as dog worrying, – where dogs enter a field and chase or attack sheep – that such a predator just chasing the sheep is enough to cause serious stress, and in some cases can lead to death and/or abortion.”

The National Farmers’ Union echoes this sentiment. “Any species reintroduction, particularly if it hasn’t been in this country for hundreds of years, can have a massive impact on local wildlife and biodiversity,” says Claire Robinson, countryside adviser at the union.

“In the time since lynx last appeared in this country, the habitat around us has changed dramatically; the human population has increased drastically. We do not know how lynx would behave in the current environment. Our fear is that lynx would prey on lambs.”

A Eurasian lynx in dawn light. The species was hunted to extinction in the UK. Now conservationists believe its reintroduction could control deer and restore tree cover.
Photograph by Edo Schmidt / Alamy Stock Photo

“In the time since lynx last appeared in this country, the habitat around us has changed dramatically; the human population has increased drastically. We do not know how lynx would behave in the current environment.”

Claire Robinson, National Farmers Union

Lynx UK Trust are quick to allay such fears, stressing how lynx prefer the cover of forest rather than wide, open farmland where sheep tend to graze. They point to research carried out by the University of Bern, in Switzerland in the 1990s, which discovered that, across Europe, on average each lynx kills less than one sheep a year. 

The trust admits some sheep will be killed. However, the risk is so small, they say, that they have agreed insurance cover with a London underwriter called Ark Syndicate Management Ltd to compensate farmers who lose livestock. The digital collars tracking each lynx would ensure any claim was legitimate.

What about hikers, though? Might a lynx attack a human being? The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates there are between 8,000 and 9,000 wild lynx living in Europe, increasing to 17,000 or 18,000 if you include European Russia. According to Lynx UK Trust,“throughout recorded history, lynx across Europe and Asia have never attacked a human being, child or adult”.

Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Central Highlands of Scotland. As well as the reintroduction of once-native animal species, the estate has seen native tree cover rewilding. The current fence would have to be modified – and electrified – if wolves were introduced.
Photograph by Nature Picture Library, NONE << NONE Alamy, Andy Sutton, NONE << NONE Alamy

Containment vs Access

Wolves, of course, are a different matter entirely. Which is why Lister’s fence will be both high and electrified – but interestingly, hikers in Scotland seem more concerned about their right to roam than their personal safety. Walking charity The Ramblers Association supports reintroducing native species, but only if the environmental benefits are “in balance with other impacts on the countryside”. 

When it comes to Alladale Wilderness Reserve, they object to both the impact on the landscape of the high fencing, and to the inevitable restrictions on public access.

“Even if gates were included, the fence would seriously undermine Scotland’s world-renowned public rights of access,” they claim in a statement released about the project in 2018. “It would create a dangerous precedent for other areas; essentially allowing landowners to ban public access simply by claiming their land as a paid-for reserve. What Mr Lister is proposing is not rewilding as most proponents would recognise it, but instead a large, fenced zoo with major restrictions on public access.”

Lister insists the benefits of his wolf reserve to the local economy, and its ability to connect people to nature will outweigh any disadvantages. 

“Otherwise I could leave the land as it is, overgrazed by sheep and deer, and then reap the system for sheep grants, put up a wind farm, and invite my posh friends to come and shoot deer and fish for salmon, and get drunk in the lodge every night,” he jokes. “What do you think is better?"


Gallery: Endangered Big Cats Around the World


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