IT is the forgotten predator that disappeared from Scotland due to fur hunting and habitat loss over 1000 years ago.
Since then the British countryside has been devoid of large carnivores and any memory of living alongside anything larger than a fox or badger has been lost with the brown bear and the wolf also now absent from the landscape.
Now new plans have been revealed to reintroduce one predator to Scotland – the Eurasian lynx, which is considered the most suitable candidate for carnivore restoration in Britain.
A group of three charities believe that their introduction as a natural predator of deer will have an indirect benefit to maintaining Scotland’s woodlands.
As a shy and solitary woodland hunter, lynx were rarely glimpsed and attacks on humans are virtually unknown. Research suggests the Highlands has sufficient habitat – and more than enough roe deer, the cat’s preferred prey – to support around 400 wild lynx.
But they are not going to go forward with any plan until it concludes what they see as Scotland’s first extensive and impartial study to assess people’s views about their possible reintroduction to the Scottish Highlands.
The charity partnership of Scotland:The Big Picture, Trees for Life and Vincent Wildlife Trust which is to carry out the year-long consultation say there are extensive areas of Scotland that could support lynx.
But they say but they say returning the shy and elusive animal is less about science and more about “people’s willingness to live alongside a species that’s become forgotten on these shores”.
The groups say the lost of lynx has had an impact on Scotland biodiversity.
Scotland’s “excessively high numbers” of woodland deer – which currently lack natural predators – can have a major impact on forestry and on wildlife habitats through heavy browsing.
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In taking the Caledonian Forest as an example, they say only a tiny proportion of the original forest remains, spread across scattered fragments. Most are now mainly made up of lone ‘Granny’ pines, which can be over 200 years old.
They say many of these ancient trees are dying as they stand, with no young trees to succeed them. But where seeds manage to germinate, Scotland’s excessive numbers of deer destroy the saplings.
“A major benefit of a healthy lynx population would be to reduce the impacts and costs of browsing by deer. The return of such an apex predator would likely have cascade affect, allowing native forests to regenerate, with associated benefits for woodland wildlife,” said Richard Bunting, a spokesman for the groups.
“Impact on red deer is unlikely to be significant because lynx are shy ambush-hunters, which avoid open areas. Instead lynx prefer smaller woodland deer such as roe and sika. By preying on roe deer, lynx could play a vital role in maintaining healthy woodlands.”
The charities say that lynx are now expanding in range and numbers across mainland Europe as hunting laws are enforced and public attitudes to large predators soften.
They say successful lynx reintroductions since the 1970s have brought ecological and environmental benefits to countries more densely populated than Scotland, and in areas used for farming, hunting, forestry and tourism.
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Across Europe, there was once just 700 individual cats but now there are now estimated to be 10,000 of them and successful reintroductions have been orgnaised in countries including Germany, France and Switzerland.
The charities say that based on evidence from other countries, a lynx reintroduction would have no significant impact on threatened species such as wildcats and capercaillie.
“Lynx are known to routinely prey on foxes, which do prey on capercaillie and can compete with wildcats for food, so there are potential benefits for capercaillie and wildcats,” said Mr Bunting.
“But the charities involved recognise that the lynx’s return could bring challenges too, so in our view this consultation – and a respectful dialogue with those who live and work in the countryside – is essential before any reintroduction could ever happen.
“To our knowledge there has been no formal, rigorous study of public attitudes towards lynx reintroduction like this before for the areas we are looking at, which is the Highlands and Argyll.”
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It is not the first time the idea has been mooted.
The Lynx UK Trust was denied a licence to release lynx in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, in 2018.
Steve Micklewright, chief executive of Trees for Life, said: “Scotland has more woodland deer than any other European country, and their relentless browsing often prevents the expansion and healthy regeneration of our natural woodlands. By preying on roe deer, lynx would restore ecological processes that have been missing for centuries, and provide a free and efficient deer management service.”
Jenny MacPherson, science and research programme manager with the Vincent Wildlife Trust, which will lead the study, said: “Reintroducing lynx would inevitably bring challenges. Lynx to Scotland will actively include stakeholders representing the full range of perspectives,in order to produce meaningful conclusions about the level of support or tolerance for lynx, and therefore the likely success of any future reintroduction.”