The Keeper of Secrets to Make its Return?
There are exciting plans to reintroduce the Eurasian lynx to the UK. Despite setbacks, the Lynx UK Trust is determined to bring this former native predator back to where it belongs, bringing with it many ecological and economic benefits...and I can't wait!
Exciting plans are afoot here in the UK to bring back a species that has been absent from our shores for the past 1300 years. The Eurasian lynx is a former native of the British Isles, driven out of much of its Western European range by habitat destruction and persecution for its pelts.
Ancient cultures identify the Eurasian lynx as a mysterious ‘Keeper of Secrets’ that rarely leaves the forest. For that reason, this solitary, secretive and elusive animal poses absolutely no threat to humans. Neither do they pose a serious threat to agricultural animals – elsewhere they are generally considered to kill one sheep every two years.
What they will pose a threat to is deer. Their return would return a vital natural function to our ecology, by helping to control deer populations. The overpopulation of deer has led to damage to our forests due to overbrowsing, so lynx would protect and restore them, whilst improving the habitat for smaller mammals in the process. Plus, the money that could be generated by eco-tourism could number in the tens of millions of pounds, estimates that are based on similar projects in other parts of Europe. Reintroductions of Eurasian lynx have been remarkably successful, proving that eco-friendly industries such as wildlife tourism can breathe new economic life into rural communities.
A group of expert feline conservationists have joined together to become the Lynx UK Trust. A team with 300 years of combined experience, the Trust have high hopes to reintroduce the Eurasian lynx back to the UK. And they are well on their way to doing just that.
Back in July 2017, they submitted the first ever license application for the release of the species into the UK. This followed an extensive, two-year long consultation with local and national stakeholders. Surveys of the wider public revealed that 92% of respondents, the majority being from rural areas, were in favour of the project. The application consisted of thousands of pages of explanation, literature review, data and scientific analysis. It was submitted to Natural England, UK government's adviser for the natural environment in England, and the waiting commenced.
As the government considered the application, the project got a boost in August last year. The Trust revealed that their plan to release 6 lynx into Keilder Forest in Northumberland for a 5 year trial period was a “near certainty.” They had consent for this to go ahead from owners of 20 adjoining plots in the forest, who agreed that the animals could be let loose on their land, and could be monitored by researchers, over an area totalling 700km2. Every landowner they approached gave their permission, showing the confidence in both the project and its benefits.
This was refuted by the National Sheep Association (NSA), who stated that many farmers they had spoken to along the border between Scotland and England very much opposed the release. But there is no evidence that sheep farming would suffer significant negative effects and the Trust say that the NSA has avoided every opportunity to engage with the project, ignored the benefits the release would bring to their members, and have even spread fake news to scaremonger local people. Insurance was in place, however, as the Trust had arranged for compensation to be paid to farmers for every sheep lost to a lynx attack.
Nevertheless, the NSA claimed a victory for farmers when Michael Gove, the UK government’s environment secretary, rejected the application in December last year. But it was a blow to the lynx, conservationists, and those who care about our wild places. Following advice from Natural England (NE), Gove would not grant the license on the basis that it “did not meet the necessary standards” set out in international guidelines for reintroductions, and that Defra (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) was not confident that it would succeed. Natural England has concerns over funding, the reliance on volunteers, a lack of engagement with landowners, a lack of local support and the fact that an environmental impact assessment was not included.
Reading the letter the Trust sent to the minister, what I get from it is an overwhelming sense of bafflement. But they also stand firm in their confidence in the project. They rebutted his criticisms, and said that the points he raised “seem to have ignored they key evidence that we have provided.” They said they had provided NE with much of the information he said was missing, and some of the information, such as the environmental impact assessment, had not been requested in the first place. Some points Gove raised were “contradictory to guidance offered from NE.” Issues such as the use of volunteers, which are used effectively in many conservation projects, were discussed at length with NE, and the fact that they had over £2 million worth of financial backing made them, if anything, over-resourced. They had also provided letters of support from the local community and they were given the go-ahead by The Forestry Commission.
They point out the small-scale nature of the trial release, one that could be stopped at any time by recapturing the six individuals. This is my favourite passage from their letter: “Is there any real risk…that an extensively resourced organisation with 20 years of experience in animal reintroductions and hundreds of animals in its care, including lynx, can somehow not handle the demands of just six animals through a five year trial?” Brilliant.
The Trust remains determined to succeed, and I love their positivity. And while the work in Keilder remains ongoing, some good news emerged in February this year a bit closer to home for me – expansion work is being carried out in Scotland. Three sites have been identified as potential release sites, Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Aberfoyle, Glen Feshie near the Cairngorms National Park and the Kintyre Peninsula in Argyll & Bute. A programme of ‘intensive consultations’ with communities and businesses in and around the three linked sites is about to begin, with public drop ins being held in March. Hopefully, this will lead to a multiple site application to Scottish Natural Heritage to carry out trial reintroductions!
Conservation efforts across Europe, including reintroductions, has resulted in a quadrupling of their numbers in just 50 years, but they are still under threat and many are in isolated populations. They still need our help. Independent scientific research has shown that Scotland’s forests could sustain 400 of the cats. Right now, I can only imagine how amazing it would be to have these majestic animals back in our forests. One day soon, I hope this will become a reality.