Centuries after lynx went extinct in Britain, people in Scotland are being asked whether the big cats should return.
Three charities – Scotland: The Big Picture, Trees for Life and Vincent Wildlife Trust, have joined forces to investigate the potential of release lynx into the wild in Scotland. The study, part-funded by two billionaire Danish estate owners in the Highlands, Anders Povlsen and Lisbet Rausing, will establish the attitudes of farmers, landowners and rural communities to a potential pilot project in a remote area of Scotland.
‘Shy and solitary’
The Eurasian lynx is the third largest predator in continental Europe, following the brown bear and the wolf, and is Europe’s largest native cat. Their primary prey are roe deer, a small deer species that favours woodland. Lynx were once native to Britain, but were driven to extinction 500 to 1,000 years ago due to hunting and habitat loss.
Last month, the charities embarked on a year-long study to examine public attitudes to the idea of reintroduction, and to investigate the obstacles to returning the animals to parts of the Cairngorms and Argyll.
The collaborating charities believe that there are sound ecological incentives for bringing back lynx, an animal they describe as a ‘shy and solitary’ woodland hunter, rarely seen and not known to attack humans.
It is thought that, if the survey and engagement campaign succeeds in providing enough public support, an application for a licence to release the first of up to 40 lynx into the wild could be made in about five years.
The study, Lynx to Scotland, will include consultation with rural communities and is distinct from other lynx reintroduction projects. There are strong critics of the idea, with the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) stating that a return of the predator would be ‘wholly unacceptable’ to its members.
‘A vital ecological role’
The charities explained that previous research suggested the Scottish Highlands had adequate habitat and ample roe deer to support around 400 wild individuals.
A cluster of densely forested Highland estates in the Cairngorms, including estates owned by Povlsen and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserve at Abernethy, are seen as the most likely sites for the pilot project. The lynx would be tagged and closely monitored.
Steve Micklewright, chief executive of Findhorn-based Trees for Life, said that Scotland has more roe deer than any other European country and that lynx could help control deer numbers in areas where their feeding harms natural woodland regeneration.
He explains, ‘By preying on roe deer lynx would restore ecological processes that have been missing for centuries, and provide a free and efficient management service.’
Peter Cairns, of Scotland: The Big Picture, said that predators like lynx play a key part in healthy natural environments.
He said, “With a global biodiversity crisis, we have a responsibility to have open and constructive conversations around restoring key native species to the Scottish landscape – and science shows that apex predators like lynx play a vital ecological role in maintaining healthy living systems.”
Lynx have been reintroduced to other parts of Europe, such as Germany’s Harz National Park in 2000.
However, NFUS is strongly opposed to the reintroduction. It is said that an NFUS study trip to Norway in 2017 heard that Norwegian authorities paid out compensation on 20,000 sheep killed by predators, with lynx accounting for a fifth of the losses.
NFUS vice president and hill farmer Martin Kennedy said, ‘The Norwegians told us that to reintroduce predators into our country would be an absolute catastrophe. Their experience has strengthened our resolve.’
Angus MacFayden, NFUS environment and land use committee chairman said: ‘NFU Scotland remains crystal clear that any proposals to re-introduce predators such as lynx are wholly unacceptable to Scottish farmers and crofters.’
The past three to four years have seen a long line of brazen and presumptuous claims from organisations about the imminent reintroduction of lynx to the UK.’
The Scottish government currently has no plans to reintroduce lynx. The Lynx to Scotland study will run until February next year.