After 1,300 years, the lynx could be set to return to British woodlands within months after plans were submitted to reintroduce the species.
The Lynx UK Trust has announced it will apply for a trial reintroduction for six lynx into the Kielder forest, Northumberland, following a two-year consultation process with local stakeholders.
In the UK, the lynx was hunted to extinction for its fur. The enigmatic cat can grow to 1.5m in length and feeds almost exclusively by ambushing deer.
The group chose the Kielder forest for the trial due to its large size, few roads, and abundance of deer.
“Lynx belong here as much as hedgehogs, badgers, robins, blackbirds – they are an intrinsic part of the UK environment,” Dr Paul O’Donoghue, the trust’s chief scientific adviser stated. “There is a moral obligation. We killed every single last one of them for the fur trade, that’s a wrong we have to right.”
Sheep farmers and some locals are opposed to the reintroduction, but Dr O’Donoghue, believes there are good reasons for reintroducing the predator.
Rural communities would also benefit from ecotourism, O’Donoghue said: “They will generates tens of millions of pounds for struggling rural UK economies. Lynx have already been reintroduced in the Harz mountains in Germany. They have branded the whole area the ‘kingdom of the lynx’. Now it is a thriving ecotourism destination and we thought we could do exactly the same for Kielder,” he said.
Lynx would also boost the natural environment, said O’Donoghue, by reducing the overgrazing of forests by deer, allowing other wildlife to flourish. “We have a massive overpopulation of roe deer in the UK,” he said. “We are one of the most biodiversity poor countries in the world. We need the lynx, more than the lynx needs us.”
The National Sheep Association, which represents farmers, said it “fully opposed” the proposal.
“Even if compensation were offered, it will not make sheep mortalities acceptable and, given the general public’s reaction to some of the harrowing images caused by domestic dog attacks and their expectation of high animal welfare, I cannot see how distressing attacks caused by a wild animal will be accepted,” said chief executive Phil Stocker.
“We are confident that pastoral livestock farming already delivers a highly attractive countryside with environmental, economic and social benefits.” he said. “I cannot accept that lynx could improve or deliver anything more.”
“You will never see a lynx running across an open field chasing down prey – they can’t do it, ” said Dr O’Donoghue. “They are the epitome of a forest specialist – their coat is dappled.”
Extensive research across Europe, home to roughly 10,000 wild lynxes, had found the cats kill only one sheep every two-and-a-half years. There are also no recorded attacks on humans by lynx.
The lynx that may be released in Kielder would come from Sweden, where there is a thriving population, and all would have GPS collars reporting their location at all times. “They will be the most studied animals in Britain,” said O’Donoghue, who has also advised on the reintroduction of the great bustard bird in Britain and black rhinos and chimpanzees in Africa.
The plan is to release two males and four females, all young adults, as part of the trial is to see if the animals will breed.
The Lynx UK Trust will submit its application for a five-year trial introduction to Natural England (NE) in the coming weeks. “We could have lynx back on the ground in 2017,” said O’Donoghue. “We have taken the concerns of stakeholders and used them to design a project plan which we believe mitigates any risk. At this time we do not see any reasons why a licence would not be forthcoming.”
If lynx are reintroduced, it would be very difficult for eco-tourists to see the mainly nocturnal animals, O’Donoghue said: “Lynx are very secretive and elusive, but that’s completely irrelevant. It’s a chance to walk in a forest where lynx live, a chance to see a lynx track, to see a lynx scratching post. And if you did see a lynx in the wild, it would be the wildlife encounter of a lifetime.”