Interview with the Lynx Trust
25th March 2015
An interview with Steve Piper, of the Lynx UK Trust, which is aiming to reintroduce Lynx cats back to the British Isles after an absence of approximately 1,300 years.
All images credit: Erwin van Maanen
Firstly can you tell us a bit about the Lynx?
Eurasian lynx are great cats, mostly evolved for colder climates they've got some interesting special adaptations like their huge, webbed, snowshoe feet and thick fur (including their distinctive "beard"!), whilst the little tufts on the ears improve hearing, which is already a phenomenally powerful sense in the cat family. They once spread from the UK all the way to China (lynx in North America are close relatives but not the same species), but in Europe hunting and deforestation wiped out most of them; around the 1940s there were only about 700 left. That population has bounced back to about 10,000 as legal protections have
come into force, hunting pressures have eased and reforestation has happened, over recent decades there have been several successful reintroductions in countries like France, Switzerland and Germany as well as lynx-led recolonisation in many countries too. They're incredibly shy cats and live solitarily, so they can fit into the comparitively small patches of wild land left between human developments very well and little noticed by the people who live near them.
What is a day in the life of a Lynx like? Do they sleep during the
day, do they travel far etc?
Like most cats they tend to prefer darker hours, and will often be most active at dawn and dusk when their night vision eyesight gives them the greatest advantage over prey, whilst getting up to other things like maintaining scent marks through their territory at other times. They'll ideally aim to hunt just once every day or so, mostly targeting deer like roe or muntjac as a good sized meal, occasionally they'll eat rabbit and hare, and occasionally they'll go for the larger deer species as well, just about managing young red deer or small females; they can take quite large prey but will mostly go for something comfortably sized. If they've eaten well then they'll spend most of the day sleeping the meal off up a tree somewhere; just like pet cats, wild cats like to sleep a lot.
The amount of space they use is incredibly varied, depending on things like the habitat they're in and the amount of prey available; if deer are very sparse they can roam over quite substantial distances, up to 20km in a night, however in deer-dense environments they can settle into surprisingly small territories of just a few km2. All wild cats are energy efficient, they'll roam only as far as is necessary to find a good hunting opportunity, but will occasionally take a more distant stroll out of their regular territory just to make sure they're not missing out on anything interesting. The deer population in the UK is very dense in many places, so we'd expect them to stay very local to where they're released, and they'll be tracked by satellite collars the whole time so we can understand exactly how they respond to the UK environment.
What is the Lynx's history in the British Isles, when did it go
extinct and why? Also, is there any references to Lynx in British
Ice ages have continually driven our wildlife back and forth so they've lived here at various times, probably for a couple of million years. They are believed to have gone extinct here around 700ad, where there are references to them as a "game animal" (an animal that is hunted) in texts from the Lake District, and the most modern skulls found carbon date to a similar time. It is likely that fur hunting was an important driver of their extinction, habitat loss is often suggested as well, though so many other animals made it past that point it seems strange the lynx didn't without a really significant additional pressure, such dense and lustrous fur being a valuable asset at any time in human history.
Why do you think it is a good idea to introduce the Lynx back into the British countryside?
Largely because our ecology misses them, deer overpopulation being the most obvious example; so much of our forestry looks lovely from a distance but you get inside it and there's a clear deer-browsing line below which everything is stripped bare. We're very overpopulated with deer, don't hunt enough to replace what lynx did for us, and sudden crashes in population through culling, which quickly bounce back, leave no time for forest regeneration and cost a lot of money. Lynx can't solve that entirely but they can be a huge help, both by direct predation bringing the deer numbers down, but also by affecting deer behaviour; the presence of a predator keeps deer far more mobile than they currently are, spreading their browsing out more sustainably across a wider area. From that point, all sorts of good things happen as the
forest habitats can begin to regenerate a whole range of plants and shrubs across the forest floor, which benefits all the smaller forest animals further down the food chain. Apex predators are really important to the ecology, ours suffers for not having any.
If you get the go ahead what are your plans for reintroduction? Will they be monitored and what would you predict might be the situation, say for example 20 years after they are released? How far they likely to have spread and how many might there be?
Healthy lynx would be brought here from another European population, given time to acclimatise through a period of quarantine in large, temporary enclosures right where they'll be released. After a while the enclosure doors will be left open and it's up to the lynx where they go next; this is called a "soft release". The enclosure stays there for some time with food still regularly left out in it, so the lynx can use it as a familiar safe place where it can find food whilst it gets to know the area and where the prey hang out. After a few months they'll usually stop coming back to the enclosure having found good hiding places and worked out some prey movements in the environment. Estimating
spread over 20 years would take a massive guess, it depends so much on how they feel about the habitat here, generally cats spread quite slowly though, in the Jura Mountains in Europe 30 were reintroduced in the 1970s, forty years later there are about 100 of them, so they will expand very slowly, and yes, they'll be very heavily monitored mostly via the satellite collars, which regularly transmit a GPS position.
Will sheep farmers need convincing and will Lynx not attack their flocks?
Certainly many sheep farmers are concerned about a predator that can take a sheep coming into the environment. For various reasons though, lynx are a very minimal threat to sheep, largely because sheep tend to live in very open spaces like fields and moors, whilst lynx like to stay in quite dense forestry, so they come across each other quite rarely. Various studies in Europe have found averages around two sheep per lynx per year being taken, which is extremely manageable through a generous
compensation program we will be setting up. There are also some
interesting deterrants being developed that we intend to trial here as additional protection for sheep farmers. Overall, all the evidence suggests that lynx will have almost no impact on sheep.
Great Britain has never been so populated with people in its history. If we had the same population density per sq/mile as Sweden our population would be 6.5 million. If it was the same density as France our population would be 29 million, but it is 63 million and ONS precict an increase to 70 million by the mid 2020s. Is it appropriate to release large predators into a country with such a high population and will there not be an increased chance of human / animal conflict?
No wild Eurasian lynx has ever attacked a human, however much you multiply zero it's still zero; lynx are very fearful and avoidant of us, making them such a good candidate for reintroduction; we may get the wonderful benefit of seeing them a bit more often here than in other places, but there really is no indication that they can ever be a threat to humans. Something their presence can certainly do is act as a figurehead for conserving the wilder places that the UK has left, as this human population pressure grows the tempatation to bulldoze all our forests will grow, hopefully they can help remind us that these places have great value to us.
For years there has been sightings of 'big cats' supposedly on the
loose in the UK. Do you think this is credible, and is it possible some Lynx are already living in the British countryside?
It's certainly possible, roadkills have turned up proving it happens,
though these will be individuals escaped from private collections, or exotic pets turfed out when they got too big, rather than a true ongoing population, and it does tend to be small to medium sized cats like lynx rather than true big cats that turn up. We've seen a lot of sighting reports since the coverage of our proposed trial, so it wouldn't be a surprise if there are a few wandering around, and no surprise they do so largely undetected because of that extremely shy nature.
Have any other European countries re-introduced the Lynx and how successful has it been?
Yes, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, France, Germany and Switzerland have all reintroduced, and in quite a number of countries lynx have recolonised themselves, crossing borders into France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Bosnia and possibly the Netherlands as well. Universally, they've fitted in wonderfully, and Germany in particular has developed careful eco-tourism around their presence which has been economically very beneficial to remote rural communities. Looking at all this success where the lynx have all done exactly as expected (avoiding people, eating deer, not showing much interest in sheep) makes them a
really strong candidate for reintroduction here.
How can people help the Lynx UK Trust if they are interested in your work?
Help spread the word! We're really trying to get information like this out to the UK population through the media and social networks (facebook.com/lynxuktrust and twitter.com/lynxuktrust), you can find detailed answers to some of the most frequently asked questions on our website (www.lynxuk.org) which are easily shared around; the more you understand these cats, the clearer it becomes what incredible benefits they can bring the UK, so spreading information is really important to getting this reintroduction happening, and making it successful.