This was first published in Outdoor Photography (UK). © Niall Benvie 2006
Recent research has revealed that European lynx hunted in our forests as recently as the Middle Ages. Niall Benvie considers the ecological – and economic – case for their return to Britain.
By one of those “what-are-the-chances-of-this ?” coincidences, I found myself seated next to my son’s school teacher and her husband on a flight to Prague. He is a sheep farmer and I am a lynx enthusiast. Inevitably the subject of the purpose of my trip came up and with it the topic of species reintroductions. We should have stopped there – I had still to gather my facts about lynx and sheep – but neither of us could quite resist the chance for an exchange of dogma. He held to the reasonable belief that letting loose anything that ate sheep was a bad idea: I argued that if the money generated by people coming to see the sheep-eater was greater than the economic worth of the sheep itself, the idea should be considered, especially if the farmer was the recipient of that money.
“The fact is, “ comments Dr Duncan Halley, a long time observer of carnivore management in Norway, “Where sheep are grazed, unsupervised in forests, lynx do take a certain number. But lynx are woodland animals and you can expect much lower levels of predation when sheep are on the open hill, such as in Scotland.” The evidence from lynx populations elsewhere in Europe, however, is ambiguous. In most places, roe deer is by far the largest component in the diet by biomass - roughly 70 % in the Czech Republic. Yet in the year following the reintroduction of lynx into the Jura in France, 123 domesticated sheep were taken. In contrast, loses of domestic livestock to core lynx populations in Slovakia and Poland have been minimal in recent years. Indeed, losses to reintroduced lynx in Switzerland declined from 219 in 2000 to just 36 in 2005. Good husbandry is the key here: in Slovakia, sheep in the mountains are normally folded at night and guarded from wolves and other predators by a shepherd and his Slovak Cuvac dog. Such practices are no longer economic in the UK and in spite of roe deer densities higher than in Norway, Dr Ludek Bufka, who has worked on the lynx of the Czech Republic’s Sumava National Park, believes that they may preferentially prey on unattended Scottish sheep. But Dr David Hetherington – the UK’s leading lynx specialist – is sceptical. “The vast majority of Scottish sheep are grazed in the open, and most Scottish forest contains no sheep, so I would not anticipate a Norwegian scenario. On open pastures on the Continent, sheep killing – mainly lambs – is very localised and small scale“
It’s a mistake to reduce issues of predation to pure economics: there is pride and sentiment involved too. The idea of wild animal undoing their hard work is difficult for farmers and their families to bear and frustration turns to profound hurt when hand-reared orphaned lambs fall victims.
If any risk to sheep sounds like a strong case against reintroduction – and Dr Hetherington, has determined that there is sufficient prey and habitat to support over 400 lynx in Scotland alone – consider the experience in Germany’s Harz mountains.
“The idea was conceived 30 years before the first lynx were brought back to the Harz – and that happened only after 10 years of careful ground work, “ explains Friedhart Knolle of the Harz Mountains National Park and one of the chief movers in the return of lynx to the Harz. In practice, this meant working with the local population, many of whom are hunters, to persuade them that their sport wouldn’t be spoiled. This was done alongside a carefully orchestrated pro-lynx campaign directed at the public and local politicians, led by slogans along the lines of “The lynx; he’s an old Harz fellow – one of us”. Eventually such a head of popular and political support was built that the Hunting Association of Lower Saxony was obliged to join the coalition behind the reintroduction plan or else be seen as backward-looking and self interested.
In 2000, the first three animals were released. There were flaws in the reintroduction methodology – as budgets were extremely limited – and concerns over the provenance of the animals but while the programme is disparaged by some biologists, lessons can be drawn from the economic knock-on effects. “This is now known as Lynx Country, “ explains Friedhart, “it has become our brand. Many more people come to the National Park because a perception now exists that this a place wild enough to provide a home to lynx.” Andreas Gummich is the owner of the Rabenklippe Restaurant in the Park and he has seen a 25% rise in custom in the past 5 years. “People always ask about the lynx,” he enthuses, “and more people are staying more days in the area as a result of them,” he claims.
Currently, Scotland’s forests are wild enough to provide a home to , well, pine martens and foxes. In terms of attracting visitors – and providing local people with an economic benefit – these carnivores just aren’t in the same league as lynx.
There is a sound ecological case too for the restoration of this native top predator. While they tend to hit roe deer populations very hard – killing up to 50 % of the existing stock during the period of adjustment (5 – 10 years following release) the chorus of approval amongst foresters is likely to be louder than the complaints from those engaged in roe deer stalking. As a forest dweller, lynx may also make significant inroads into the burgeoning population of sika deer – an alien whose hybridisation with red deer is causing serious concerns about the latter’s genetic integrity in Scotland. Lynx are also intolerant of other predators in their territory and kill any feral cats and foxes they come across. Lynx and wildcat coexisted in Scotland before the former’s extinction so there is no reason to suspect that this shouldn’t happen again. Czech biologist, Dr Ales Toman, has also speculated that, as in the case of the critically endangered Iberian lynx, European lynx released in Scotland may develop a taste for rabbit.
Unlike those two high profile avian re-introductions, the sea eagle and red kite, any lynx population that is re-established in Scotland will keep a low profile – casual sightings in the wild are rare. But as we have seen in Germany, simply knowing that they are in the same forest as a lynx, seeing pug marks or finding a kill, is enough for many people. Moreover, the status of wildness that a resident lynx population confers on an area is even more valuable. Scotland’s lack of wild, natural forest would seem to conspire against the lynx but in Switzerland they occupy regions where forest cover is as low as 20 percent, so long as there is little human settlement. In spite of its extremely reclusive nature, female lynx sometimes den under rural outbuildings where they are not disturbed – I know of cases in Latvia and the Czech Republic where this has happened.
As Friedhart Knolle observes, “A good [scientific] argument alone is not enough to make something like this [reintroduction] happen.” Ultimately, it is a matter of wooing and winning over doubters like my travel companion by helping them turn “problem” into profit. And in this, the role of the photographer could not be clearer.
Why reintroductions ?
If you wonder why we need beavers or lynx (or even wolves) in Scotland, why we should incur the expense when extant populations of many species already need help, ask yourself why you need friends or why we bother to have children. What’s the point of keeping a dog? Ask then why the forests, wetlands and mountains need these species. Quite simply, without them, they are impoverished, less interesting and more predictable. They are fellow citizens of our country which we should find space in our imaginations to accommodate. We are deluding ourselves if we think that Scotland is truly wild without them.