Connecting The Lynx
Britain's ecology contains a cavernous void. A space that's remained unfilled for almost 300 years. Scotland is missing a large carnivore in its food chain. You would think that such a fundamental deficiency would be a cause for concern - a top priority to be addressed. But no, while the rest of the continent has seen impressive resurgences of bear, wolf and lynx, the fact we're surrounded by water means any recolonisation must be by way of a formal reintroduction. Nature and fate must play second fiddle to politics and psychology; a conscious decision needs to be made. Cultural entrenchment, a uniquely complex land use model and an irrational fear of anything with tooth and claw prevents progress. Yet the land is crying out for such a return.
Deer numbers in Scotland are still well above the carrying capacity of the land. Overbrowsing has decimated the vegetation. New growth not protected by tree guards or fences is eaten up - ecological processes often can't get out of first gear. Some would say we've been stuck in neutral for many decades. The forest-dwelling Eurasian lynx is a roe deer-hunting specialist, known to predate the non-native sika too. It's solitary, elusive and mysterious, going to great lengths to avoid interaction with humans, and it's relatively small for a 'large carnivore' - similar in stature to a labrador. It is by far the most suitable candidate for reintroduction when compared with wolf and bear.
The first reintroduction in Europe took place in 1970, and they've continued until recently. Fifteen in total spanning almost fifty years. Think about that. Any reintroduction in the UK would immediately benefit from a half-century of what has and hasn't worked. We would get the best practice handbook on how to integrate the lynx back into the countryside, and our consciousnesses. No need for costly trial and error, experimenting with mitigation, education, release and monitoring; it's all been done before and much has been learnt from past mistakes. They can now be found in 24 European countries, and their presence has not led to the unravelling of rural life. Most people are unaware they're even there.
They do not pose a danger to us. They will not charge across fields to kill flocks of sheep; they don't like open spaces. They will not prey upon all the gamebirds and our precious capercaillie where they have a plentiful supply of deer and suitable habitat. There is some evidence they could in fact be an unlikely ally, by suppressing fox numbers along with other mesopredators.
There is more than enough space for them, especially in Scotland. They will bring in tourism. They will provide carrion and nutrient cycling to help reinvigorate our broken ecology, and aid vegetation growth by keeping herbivores on the move. The carrion will provide an all-year-round supply of food for a plethora of creatures - from beetles to badgers. If left alone for long enough in sufficient numbers, they could assume a regulatory role for an entire forest ecosystem.
The ecological case for their reinstatement is well documented; as is the moral argument that we contributed to their extinction sometime in the medieval period and therefore have a responsibility to redress this. But what I'm particularly interested in is the potentially positive social effect they could have on the psyche of our island. In numerous areas where they've returned they're a source of local and national pride. What could it do for our minds, to have a charismatic predator back in our forests once again after such a long absence? Support for such a return is growing, and growing fast. Handled properly, a Eurasian lynx reintroduction has the power to re-energise the whole country.
When talking reintroductions, advocates are increasingly forced to make a business case for it, and walk on eggshells when communicating with stakeholders. The discussion is all very scientific, technical, mechanical - political. The benefits to mental wellbeing through a renewed sense of wonder and excitement are usually overlooked. What if the lynx became an emblem for a more environmentally compassionate and progressive Britain, heralding a new era of human-wildlife coexistence? What would that do for our culture? Could guardianship of lynx become, over time, a new tradition that's defended as equally passionately as sheep farming or grouse shooting?
And for everyone, the thrill of walking through a forest you know is inhabited by this new enigmatic feline; perhaps in eager anticipation towards a trail camera you've had out for weeks to catch a tantalising glimpse. Or for an overnight stay in a hide to see it in real time. For wildlife enthusiasts it could be the 'holy grail' of encounters. For those less interested in wildlife, its magnetism has the power to win them over and, in doing so, create more advocates for nature and inspire the next generation who will inherit a world even more volatile than the one we currently have. Right now, that can only be a good thing for society and the environment we depend on.
Lynx reintroductions across Europe have ignited the imagination and involved communities, presenting them with an emotional stake in the project. They want to see it succeed, they become fascinated with the animal - it enriches their lives. I really do believe the same thing could happen here: we just need the right sort of education and planning in place from the beginning. It could and should be a government-backed, but community-owned project. Give communities who have to live alongside the lynx ownership, and the reintroduction stands the best chance of success. Once you have that, it will accumulate interest from other areas, and before you know it, you have a network of like-minded locals working towards a shared goal of lynx conservation, nurturing a new mindset with far-reaching perks that will filter down to other wildlife.
The lynx could reawaken something in all of us. A primal urge to reconnect with the wild nature of our past, to live a bit closer to nature, to be in awe of it. To respect it, to tolerate it. To coexist with it. This year unlike any other has already underlined how much we depend on wildlife to maintain and improve our wellbeing. Living alongside lynx could take that to a whole new level as we proceed through psychologically challenging times. A Britain with lynx could be a happier, more ecologically curious place. So do we aim higher and open the door, or keep it shut, content with what we have?