The lynx effect

A cat courts controversy

The reintroduction of the Eurasian lynx (_Lynx lynx_) to Britain is a polarising and contentious issue. Lynx are a native part of British fauna, and were pushed to extinction here by hunting and loss of woodland habitat in the Middle Ages, sometime around 500-1,000 years ago. Unlike other large carnivores such as the wolf, there is no clear evidence of historical demonisation of the lynx in Britain. However some perceive the prospect of lynx reintroduction as a risky and foolish venture, viewing the lynx as a harbinger of doom for sheep farming, the final death blow to a rural livelihood on the brink. Others see them as much needed heralds of ecological salvation to our depleted and degraded landscape. But what might be the true implications of returning this apex predator to our landscape?

According to biologist and lynx expert Dr David Hetherington, Britain is “the largest country in Europe and almost the whole world” which no longer harbours any of its large carnivores. We expect other countries with more formidable felines such as lions and tigers to rightfully conserve their populations. What does it say about us when the discussion around the reintroduction of our own native cat seems to incite so much ire? Britain also happens to be among the most reluctant of all European countries when it comes to reintroducing missing species, a pattern which can also be clearly seen playing out with beaver reintroduction.

All species play an important role in the ecosystems they are a part of - but not all species are created equal, with some punching far beyond their weight in terms of their influence on the wider environment. These may be defined as keystone species, which includes the lynx. The return of such species - coupled with the restoration of degraded or increasingly rare ecosystems - is vital if we hope to stem the flow of biodiversity loss from our land. As apex predators, lynx play a key role in regulating the ecosystems they are a part of, which will be imbalanced without them.

_European lynx (Felis lynx) young kitten in woodland in summer (captive). Photo credit - Mark Hamblin /

Some people fear the lynx, but this fear is needless. There is not a single record of a healthy lynx attacking a human. Despite their reputation, predators such as lynx tend to have an inherent fear of humans, after centuries or millennia of persecution, and tend to give us a wide berth. We have no reason to fear lynx - but they have very good reason to fear us. The gravest threat lynx face is humans - humans in cars, humans with guns, and humans with traps and snares.

Lynx are secretive woodland dwelling ambush predators, with the vast majority of their attacks on prey occurring under or within close proximity to tree cover. Shunning the open, they lack the stamina of other predators such as wolves and must get within 10 metres of prey to launch a surprise attack. This largely limits lynx to woodland habitats which provide them with sufficient cover. While lynx will take a variety of prey, they are roe deer hunting specialists, these deer being an optimal size for lynx to tackle, and they are consistently found to be the main prey item of lynx across studies13%5B393:VIDPSA%5D2.0.CO;2/Variation-in-diet-prey-selectivity-and-home-range-size-of/10.2981/0909-6396(2007)13%5B393:VIDPSA%5D2.0.CO;2.full).

A major ongoing source of ecological damage in Britain (particularly Scotland) is overbrowsing caused by an overpopulation of deer, due to an absence of large carnivores. Overgrazing by deer and sheep is one of the primary reasons why Britain’s forest cover is just one-third of the EU average. Scotland in particular has very high populations of both roe and red deer, and their rampant overgrazing is a major barrier to natural forest regeneration, with the landscape likely to persist in a diminished state until deer populations are effectively controlled. Sika deer are alien to Britain and exert further pressure on woodlands, with lynx known to prey on these where their ranges overlap in Eurasia. Muntjac are another non-native deer that cause significant ecological and economic damagein Britain, and while the species do not currently overlap in range, it is likely lynx will also prey on them.

Damage to forestry by deer and their management is a significant economic drain on Scotland, costing millions each year. On the continent, most foresters actively welcome the lynx. Having lynx back helping keep a lid on deer populations would have important and beneficial implications to the entire woodland ecosystems they are a part of. However, the impact of lynx on the larger red deer is likely to be lesser, with red deer overpopulation being a particular barrier to forest regeneration. While lynx may help control deer populations, it is important not to set the bar of expectations too high - prior to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, resident populations of predators including bears and cougars were unable to control populations of elk in the park.

In addition to hunting deer, lynx are known to prey on foxes, and they can have a significant impact on fox populations in some areas. The impact of lynx on deer and fox populations will be localised to where they occur however. Lynx don’t consume all of their kills, and the leftover carrion is an important food source for a vast array of wildlife, including many different species of birds, mammals and invertebrates - particularly during the winter months, when other food is scarce. As the carcasses rot down, they in turn enrich the soil which benefits plants and the species that depend on them.

An example of prime lynx habitat; Loch Beinn a'Mheadhoin in Glen Affric, Scotland © SCOTLAND: The Big Picture

Scotland appears particularly well suited for lynx reintroduction. Research on the deer population density, and the availability and interconnection of suitable woodland habitat in the landscape indicates that north-west Scotland could support a population of up to 400 lynx (with a population of 250 individuals required to be genetically viable). Potential conflict with humans is also less - Scotland is 60% the size of England but populated by 5.4 million people compared to England’s 55 million. The Scottish Highlands comprise a sizeable portion of the north of the country and is one of the least populated parts of Europe.

Peter Cairns is the Executive Director of SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, one partner organisation involved in a social feasibility project to better understand Scottish public attitudes to the lynx. In his words:

With a global biodiversity crisis, we have a responsibility to have open and constructive conversations around restoring key native species to the Scottish landscape – and science shows that apex predators like lynx play a vital ecological role in maintaining healthy living systems.

France, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovenia have all embarked on Eurasian lynx reintroduction initiatives - all without calamity. However when Switzerland reintroduced lynx, they did so without prior public consultation, which resulted in animosity among hunters and farmers, and lynx being purposely killed out of anger and resentment. Any attempt at lynx reintroduction to Scotland would benefit considerably from what has been learned in the last half century from early pioneering reintroduction initiatives.

Wild female european lynx (Lynx lynx) feeding on a chamois carcass in the Jura mountains in Switzerland. This female has been found shot dead in the middle of a field in sept. 2015.

Some have concerns about possible impacts of lynx reintroduction on threatened wildlife, such as wildcats and capercaillie. It is true that the populations of these species are teetering on the brink in Britain. However lynx once co-existed with these species here. All three species overlap in range today in the Jura, Carpathians and Slovenian Alps, and once did over a much greater expanse of Eurasia. Ecological food webs are intricate and multi-layered - while it might seem like lynx would pose a threat to these species, the truth is more complex. One ten year study of the diet of 39 lynx in the Swiss Jura Mountains recorded only a single animal of each species being eaten (while foxes were the third most consumed species).

Higher numbers of small predators such as foxes due to the loss of larger predators including lynx is thought to be a contributing factor to capercaillie decline (with breeding females particularly vulnerable to foxes). In addition, lynx colonisation of landscapes in Sweden and Finland is thought to have benefitted ground nesting birds such as capercaillie. A major source of capercaillie mortality in Scotland is fatal collisions with deer fencing - having lynx back in our landscape would render deer fencing redundant where they occur. Deer also compete with capercaillie by grazing on bilberry, and so with deer populations controlled by lynx, it would free up this important capercaillie food source which may play a significant role in the survival of this majestic bird. In the case of wildcats, foxes are known to be important competitors, and may prey on wildcat kittens on occasion. A suppression of the fox population may benefit wildcats by increasing abundance of prey.

Sheep farmers have justified concerns about the potential impacts of lynx on sheep, with Britain hosting far more sheep than any other European country. However, representatives of the farming community such as the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS) are quick to point out the example of Norway as a clear example of the “absolute catastrophe” that awaits sheep farmers should Britain decide to embark on a course of lynx reintroduction. The deputy director of NFUS stated that the “circumstances in Norway are not that dissimilar to parts of Scotland”. This statement simply reflects a lack of knowledge or understanding of the issues. Norway is very much the exception rather than the rule, and using it as a doom-laden template for what might unfold in Scotland is highly questionable, for a number of reasons. Certainly, far higher numbers of sheep are lost to lynx in Norway than anywhere else in Europe. But the figures presented should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

According to the compensation scheme used in Norway, some 7,000 - 10,000 sheep are lost to lynx each year. While this seems a very large number, it should not be accepted at face value. Unusually, over 97% of sheep lost are not subjected to any kind of autopsy, with most carcasses never found. A government commissioned assessment led by an independent team of scientists concluded that lynx could not possibly be responsible for the sheep losses they were being blamed for, and that losses could be being overestimated by up to nine times the likely level. It is highly likely that sheep were lost through other predators, in addition to accidents and disease. Up to 80,000 - 100,000 sheep are lost in Norway each year for reasons not attributed to predators. This suggests that up to ten times more sheep are lost than the overblown losses linked to lynx.

Compensation schemes have their limitations, and on the continent, they have done little to change negative perceptions of wolves or bears among farmers, or prevent poaching. Such schemes are also open to abuse, as in the case of Norway, and in Spain around 200,000 Euros of claims have been falsely made by a network of farmers using doctored photographs, fanning the flames of anti-wolf sentiment there and exacerbating conflict. Any compensation schemes employed should employ independent verification of lynx livestock losses so as to avoid some of these issues.

Sweden has a different approach, where farmers are paid an annual stipend simply for hosting lynx on their land, irrespective of losses, which would likely engender greater involvement of farmers, while avoiding some of the limitations with the ‘per animal’ compensation schemes. In other areas, compensation payments are conditional on prior implementation of prevention measures - however without financial assistance to farmers, uptake can be weak.

There are also significant differences in sheep farming practices between Scotland and Norway. Around two thirds of Scotland’s sheep are grazed year-round in fenced fields on lower ground, with the other third grazed in the uplands, where some may have access to woodland areas. This stands in stark contrast to Norway, where around 2.5 million sheep are left to wander in woodland unattended, and rarely grazed behind fences. This is notable, as research there has revealed that sheep grazed behind fences are almost never killed by lynx. Fences impose more of a psychological than physical barrier, acting to preclude lynx from entering a sheep pasture by chance. When sheep are concentrated in an open pasture by a fence, rather than being dispersed in woodland, they behave more as a flock, with many pairs of eyes on the lookout for danger. Any lynx are likely to be seen, which will deter most of them, as they prefer to launch surprise attacks. Sheep should be barred entry from woodland for ecological reasons too, as their grazing, along with deer, is a major barrier to natural forest regeneration.

Eurasian lynx with town lights, Swiss Jura © Laurent Geslin

Sweden hosts four times as many lynx as Norway - but suffers much lower sheep losses, around 200 a year. A key difference between Norway and Sweden is that sheep are not grazed in woodland environments in Sweden. A study in the Swiss Alps showed that three quarters of all lynx attacks occurred under or within 100 metres of closed canopy woodland. In addition, over three quarters of all sheep killed were less than a year old. This shows that fairly simple measures such as segregating sheep (particularly lambs) from woodland edges using fences will go a long way towards minimising lynx attacks on sheep. In France’s Jura mountains, lynx took five times less sheep than in Norway, even though deer numbers are low, principally because they were farmed in enclosed pastures.

Farming differences aside, there are a number of significant ecological differences between Norway and Scotland. Roe deer population densities vary markedly between countries. Norway has an average roe deer population of 0.5 per square kilometre - in contrast, Scotland harbours some of the highest roe deer population densities in Europe, at around 14.7 and 25.7 per square kilometre in woodland environments (before considering red, sika and fallow deer). This is important, as research conducted in Norway has shown that when roe deer density reaches 4 per square kilometre (a modest density compared to much of Europe), sheep losses drop to very low levels - even in landscapes where they are abundant. Norway also has around double the forest cover of Scotland, so there is much more available habitat through which lynx can potentially ambush prey.

The combination of fences to segregate sheep from woodland and use of livestock guardian dogs would likely eliminate any threat of lynx to sheep

If Norway represents one extreme, then Romania lies at the other end of the spectrum. It possesses a substantial lynx population and a tradition of upland sheep farming - however there are no issues with lynx attacks on sheep there. This is likely down to traditional shepherding methods aimed at protecting against bear and wolf predation, which also prove very effective at protecting against lynx attacks. One such core method is the use of livestock guardian dogs. British farmers have long since abandoned traditional shepherding practices, and willingness on their part, in addition to support and funding - would be necessities if there is any hope of this being adopted. Donkeys and llamas have also been successfully trialed as livestock protectors on the continent. In the US, guard llamas have been found to reduce sheep losses to coyotes by up to 90%.

A guard llama on duty

While legitimate concerns must be addressed, hysterical scaremongering must be challenged. A young lynx by the name of Lilleth escaped from an animal sanctuary near Aberystwyth in Wales for two weeks. She was implicated in the death of seven sheep, before being shot dead. This incident was pounced on by the National Sheep Association, with its chief executive wielding it as anti-lynx propaganda by bleating that “there could not be a clearer warning of the damage lynxes will do if released into the wild”. Despite such assertions, this is anything but clear. Lilleth was an entirely hand-reared animal, not fully grown and without any experience of living in the wild, and she did her best to survive. Her case is far removed from that of wild lynx, so as to make any comparison highly suspect. The National Farmers Union has even gone as far as to claim that lynx would put ramblers at risk of attack - an utterly absurd and baseless assertion.

While farmers fear the effect they perceive lynx might have on their livelihoods, lynx could generate livelihoods for others. Wildlife tourism is an important and growing source of economic income for Scotland. Wildlife watching in particular generates around £127 million annually. People rightfully point out that given their secretive nature, one has very little chance of ever actually seeing lynx in the wild (although with an expert tracker it is possible to seek their field signs). The Loch Ness monster brings in around £41 million to the Scottish economy in a typical year - and it is much harder to see than lynx! Experience on the continent has shown that the mere presence of lynx is capable of generating a great deal of public interest, and the presence of such a wild charismatic mammal itself is sufficient to enhance the impression of a nature-tourism destination. Lynx have been estimated to add between £8 million and £13 million of tourist revenue to the Harz Mountains in Germany each year. Lynx could play an important role as a flagship animal for Scotland’s wilder places, and allow Scotland to be competitive in what is an ever-expanding international business against a growing number of overseas destinations.

The core issues around lynx reintroduction are more human than ecological, largely centering on change and control, and a lack of understanding. Change, in the form of perceptions of these animals being forced onto rural communities by outsiders who they feel are ignorant or uncaring of their concerns. Control in the form of giving over land to nature. This is an alien and threatening concept for many land managers in Britain, with our landscape having been highly managed and manicured for centuries. A greater understanding of the implications of reintroducing lynx grounded in evidence rather than opinion is also likely to allay anxieties. The human dimensions of any reintroduction project are as important for success as the ecological aspects. For lynx reintroduction to be an achievable goal, it will be essential that any land managers likely to be affected feel reassured that any concerns they have over potential negative impacts will be accommodated and mitigated.

Adult female European Lynx in birch winter forest Bardu, Norway © Scotland Big Picture

Conservation is largely about changing mindsets - and mindsets will need to be changed. In a previous email exchange with the chief executive of the National Sheep Association, he condemned the desire of some people to turn the British landscape into “some form of artificial zoo like playground”. This rigid perspective is a textbook indicator of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ a form of generational environmental amnesia, where progressive ecological degradation and biodiversity loss results in perceptions and expectations of nature being lowered over time.

People who advocate reintroducing lost species do not wish to turn Britain into an artificial zoo - all they seek is to return just some of the life that has been lost from our highly depleted landscape. Societal attitudes towards wildlife, including predators, are shifting in Britain. Red kites and white tailed sea eagles have been reintroduced to various parts of our island. Support for lynx reintroduction is high, with one survey finding 65% of the British public are behind it.

In the words of David Hetherington:

Reintroducing lynx would be a milestone for British nature conservation. By preying on roe deer, they could play a vital role in maintaining healthy woodlands. But the lynx’s return could bring challenges too, so a respectful dialogue with those who live and work in the countryside is essential before any reintroduction could ever happen.

The danger of lynx to humans is nil. The danger to livestock is small but manageable. There is the space, the means and the support for their return. Some of the benefits of the return of lost species such as the lynx may be less tangible, but still profound, transcending any material benefits we might hope to gain. Lynx are an emblem of the wild; their return to our tamed and manicured landscape is likely to engender feelings of wonder and repleteness, and help amend our broken relationship with nature. We also need to look beyond lynx alone, and see them as part of a grander vision of a wilder and richer landscape, governed by natural processes rather than solely by the heavy human hand.


Further reading - David Hetherington’s book The Lynx and Us