Put a cork in it and save the lynx

There’s good news from Portugal. 

An area there has been set aside for Europe’s rarest mammal, the Iberian lynx. The agreement between Portugal’s Institute for Nature Conservation and Forestry and local landowners covers 700 hectares in Mertola, 130km south of Lisbon.

The habitat will be protected so reintroduced lynx can hunt and breed, unmolested. There may even be a tourist pay-off; visitors will want to see this iconic animal.

The Iberian lynx is probably the world’s rarest cat. Two hundred years ago, it roamed Spain, Portugal and the south of France. By 2008, there were only three isolated populations left, all in Spain, with 100 to 160 animals in total. The species became extinct in Portugal in the 1990s, although a young male, which had wandered from Spain, was photographed in the west of the country last year.

Adult males, slightly bigger than females, are about a metre long. Both sexes have the tufted ears, short ‘bobbed’ tails and ‘goatee’ beards of their larger cousin, the Eurasian lynx. The Iberian hunts in more open forests and visits sand-dunes, so it has a lighter spotted coat. The fur is thinner, in response to the warm Spanish climate. This cat, like the Irish fox, is an opportunist, taking birds, rodents and the occasional hare. Rabbits, however, are the traditional prey and the mainstay of its diet. Unlike foxes, which have long-lasting pair bonds, the lynx lives alone. A female won’t mate until she secures a territory. She searches out a male at mating time, but raises the cubs on her own. Regarded as an agricultural pest, the lynx was hunted for its fur. It’s still caught in traps and snares set for rabbits. Cars are a hazard when it tries to cross roads.

In 1952, myxomatosis was deliberately introduced to kill rabbits in France. Other countries soon followed suit. The demise of the rabbit in Spain and Portugal had a knock-on effect on the lynx; numbers collapsed. Myxomatosis strikes in waves. As soon as the rabbits become immune to it, a new strain of the disease arrives.

Two outbreaks of another highly infectious scourge, Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease, compounded the problem. The lynx, set in its ways, couldn’t find enough alternative prey. Clearance of scrubland, road development and human encroachment, accelerated its demise.

Thanks to the efforts of the Spanish national and regional administrations, lynx numbers are slowly increasing. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there were about 230 cats living wild in 2009, including seven introduced to an area near Cordoba. Jerez Zoo in Andalusia has three lynxes. Their female, named Saliega, gave birth to healthy cubs in 2002. Since then, young have been born at several breeding centres. There are now over 80 animals in the captive breeding programme. Hopefully, it will become possible to introduce zoo-raised cats to the wild.

Irish wine-drinkers can do their bit for the Iberian lynx. Traditionally, wine bottles had stoppers made of bark from the Iberian cork oak forests, a habitat on which the lynx depends. Harvesting does not harm the trees. Only outer layers of bark are stripped to make stoppers; the bark soon re-grows.

Using cork, therefore, is ‘sustainable’. It has been ‘stopping’ wine for millennia. Holding a tiny amount of air, gases imparted under pressure add to the flavour of the wine. Growers claim, however, that leakage is a problem. One in every twenty bottles of corked wine, it seems, is ‘tainted’. Screw-on metal caps, they argue, are more practical. If the traditional stoppers are replaced by metal or plastic ones, there will be no incentive to preserve the rare cork forests; they and the lynx will suffer.

Screw caps are fine for cheap plonk but, for a romantic atmosphere on that important first date, a corked bottle is essential. It also has ‘cachet’ on the dinner-party circuit. The ritual of drawing the cork adds to a gourmet experience.

So, at your next ‘do’, toast the Iberian lynx and help spread the gospel of both cork oak and lynx conservation.


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