Conservationists Hope to Reintroduce Lynx to the UK

Bernard Landgraf via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Bernard Landgraf via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Bernard Landgraf via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The nations of the United Kingdom have a lot going for them. They’ve got history, spectacular landscapes, and a unicorn mascot. But they haven’t got lynx, and some find that fact unacceptable. A group of feline conservation experts hope to bring the vanished cats back to the UK within the next ten years.

The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) has piercing eyes and black-tufted ears. At about the size and weight of a large terrier, L. lynx is too small to be considered a big cat, but it’s certainly wild, hunting deer and other mid-size mammals for food. Lynx are solitary animals, which means that each adult needs its own territory. Many, many years ago, as human encroachment on lynx habitat increased throughout Europe, populations dwindled and some disappeared. The last time a lynx was seen in England was around the year 700. Which means, according to members of the Lynx UK Trust, it’s time to restore the missing lynx.

Image Credit: David Castor via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Species introduction programs have been around for a while, as people attempt to restore balance to damaged ecosystems. But with so many factors at play, early reintroduction efforts were more likely to fail than succeed. A lot of animals have died because well-meaning conservationists failed to account for unpredictable climate or new human threats.

Each failure is a lesson however, and today’s reintroduction programs are typically more sophisticated and more successful. About a dozen species, from bison to butterflies, have been re-established in the UK alone.

Members of the UK Lynx Trust have good reason to think a reintroduction program could work: It’s already working elsewhere. A captive breeding-and-release program in Spain has tripled lynx populations on the Iberian Peninsula. In 2014 and 2015, 124 captive-bred cats were released into the wild. Less than a year later, the lynx population numbered 400. Programs in Germany are off to a similarly promising start.

There are some hitches, of course. For one thing, the Spanish program focused on the Iberian lynx, not the Eurasian. The two species are quite similar, but they aren’t the same. For another, some UK citizens are less than thrilled with the idea of predators being released into nearby forests. "They're reputed to do a lot of their hunting within a 200–250m area surrounding woodland, and there is an awful lot of grassland grazed by sheep surrounding woodland," National Sheep Association chief executive Phil Stocker told the BBC.

Conservationists insist that the cats want deer, not livestock, and that they would be reluctant to leave the woods. “You will never see Eurasian lynx running across an open field," feline expert Paul O’Donoghue told the BBC.

The Lynx UK Trust is now in the process of identifying potential release sites. Once they’ve found those, the next step will be consulting experts—and the locals—to check if the plan is viable.