Lynx lobby gains traction in UK

THERE’S a ‘bring back the lynx’ lobby in Britain. Deer numbers in parts of England and Scotland have risen so much that their habitat is being seriously degraded. Excessive grazing is threatening native flora and there’s a new kid on the block; over 40,000 alien muntjac deer are destroying farmers’ crops.

Wolves and lynx kept deer numbers down long ago. Reintroducing them might solve the deer problem. Neither species attacks people but the thought of wolves once again roaming ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ is too scary for the public to contemplate.

The Eurasian lynx colonised Britain as the ice retreated 10,000 years ago. It survived there until at least 500AD when it was hunted to extinction for its fur. Releasing lynx at selected forest locations might be a runner but not everyone agrees with the suggestion.

Farmers fear for their livestock and wildfowlers worry about the impact on game birds. The Lynx UK Trust, which advocates a trial introduction, has carried out an opinion poll, the results of which have just been released. Of 9,000 people, asked for their views, 91% favoured bringing back lynx.

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Male lynxes weigh about 30kg, five times as much as a large tabby. About 70cm high at the shoulder, this medium-sized cat has a tawny coat with conspicuous black spots.

Black ear tufts pointing vertically upwards, and a short stumpy tail, distinguish it from other felines.

The lynx can ‘meow’ like a domestic pussy, something the so-called ‘big cats’ can’t do but, generally, it is secretive and silent.

Inhabiting European North American and Asian woodlands, this stealth predator may go unnoticed until footprints appear in snow. It stalks mainly birds and rabbit-sized mammals but will also hunt deer and wild boar.

Deer numbers are increasing in Ireland and muntjac have been introduced illegally. Foresters complain of damage to trees and deer crossing roads are said to be a traffic hazard in some areas. If releasing lynx in Britain helps solve these problems, should we introduce them here too?

When a species has been rendered extinct and its former habitat restored, it may be legitimate to reintroduce it. Indeed, countries have a duty to make good the damage of the past. However, whether the lynx should be regarded as a genuine Irish native, with a claim to being reintroduced today, is for the wildlife ‘theologians’ to haggle over.

The historical record is sparse. Some bones, thought to be from a single animal, are the only evidence that the species was ever here. These have been dated to the period following the last Ice Age. The wild pigs in Ireland back then might have been introduced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

It’s inconceivable, however, that lynx were brought in; capturing and transporting such large cats would be beyond the competence of Mesolithic people and, in any case, why would they want to do such a thing. It seems, therefore, that this, the only cat species to occur in Ireland since the Ice Age, was a genuine native.

Nor can the lynx’s extinction be blamed on humans. This elusive predator would have been safe from people in the impenetrable forests of that time; climate change was a more likely culprit. There is no international imperative, however, to increase the size of the lynx population. Unlike most other large members of the cat family, the species is not endangered. The IUCN gives it a ‘least concern’ designation.

The Lynx Trust has selected forest locations in England and Scotland which it considers suitable for releases. It’s hoped that, given the results of the recent survey, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage will agree to a field trial.

Up to half a dozen cats might be let loose at each site. Reintroduction elsewhere led to few problems with livestock; the lynx is not a serious threat to farming. In any case, the cats in Britain would be fitted with GPS tracking collars and their behaviour monitored for up to five years.

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