Government Europa spoke to Dr Paul O’Donoghue about the work being done to reintroduce the lynx into the British Isles, and how legislation at a European level is assisting with conservation and rewilding efforts in preserving habitats and species
With a population estimated at 50,000 – the majority of which are said to inhabit Russia and China – the lynx is threatened by illegal hunting for fur, habitat loss and lack of prey. Although the lynx can be found in habitats from Europe to Asia, the lynx was driven to extinction in the UK, understood to be caused by hunting for fur between 500-700 CE. The Lynx Trust UK was formed in 2014 by a group of experienced conservationists and scientists, specialising in wild felines, genetics, field research, reintroduction and education, who have worked across the globe and are now seeking to reintroduce the lynx in the UK.
Dr Paul O’Donoghue, chief scientific advisor at the Lynx Trust UK, has extensive experience working on international wildlife projects and was an expert advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cat Classification Task Force (CCTF). Government Europa spoke to Dr O’Donoghue about the work being done to reintroduce the lynx into the British Isles, and how legislation at a European level is assisting with conservation and rewilding efforts in preserving habitats and species.
Why is it so important for us to reintroduce the lynx and other such species back into habitats in the British Isles?
There are three main reasons: firstly, the lynx is a UK native species, just as the hedgehog or a blackbird. We killed every last one of them and we have a moral duty to reintroduce the lynx if the conditions are right, which we believe they are. The second point is ecological: the British countryside is, in my opinion, on its knees – it is dying. We have one of the lowest rates of biodiversity in the world, yet we’re one of the most developed countries.
The state of our countryside should be an embarrassment to our nation, and the lynx, to some extent, will help to restore that balance. We are being overeaten by deer which has meant that forest regeneration has effectively stopped, creating an imbalance in the age structure of forests, as well as contributing to a lack of nesting areas for ground-nesting birds and cover for small mammals. The plan to reintroduce the lynx will kickstart the ecosystem and start to create a natural, balanced ecosystem.
The third reason is economic; lynx are proven drivers of ecotourism all across Europe and we’ve had independent cost-benefit analyses conducted which show how lynx will generate around £12m (~€13.7m) per year in the areas that they’re released in. This is a massive investment and a massive amount of money to struggling, rural economies. We need the lynx more than the lynx needs us.
European policy makers and associations are advocating the rewilding of large areas. How important is this in line with the Habitats Directive and Natura 2000, and to the future of species such as the lynx?
We absolutely welcome this – it’s right and proper. Advocation from key decision makers is very encouraging and ties in with the positive signs shown by the UK with the announcement of the Northern forest. All this activity and goodwill across Europe points to a bright future.
However, talk is one thing and action is another. I think there needs to be an increased tolerance across Europe, for example, in relation to apex predators. We see the return of wolves, birds and lynx, as a real positive and an element of our countryside that we can’t do without. It’s fine to make noises, but it needs action, large-scale education and awareness raising amongst the general public.
I also think we have to realise that the countryside shouldn’t be dominated by a minority, such as the farming community. In the UK, sheep farming, for example, is heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, yet it’s a big voice in opposition to the lynx which will actually benefit the taxpayer. We have a situation whereby an industry supported by the taxpayer is inhibiting taxpayers from earning further revenue – it’s utterly bizarre.
In line with the distinction between awareness and implementation, how can we ensure that these policies are implemented at an EU level and across the EU?
I think it requires politicians to be brave and senior politicians to seize the moment, to understand that there is a popular movement and agenda amongst the public consciousness to reintroduce the lynx and other such species. Politicians need to realise that this is a vote winner, and this is something that people feel strongly about; the people on the street are more environmentally aware than they’ve ever been and politician’s need to start to align the environment with political campaigning, in my opinion.
There needs to be much stricter consequences for breaches of environmental legislation and I suppose in the UK, and abroad, there’s many cases of very serious environmental breaches and persecution cases which result in nothing more than a slap on the wrist. If Europe is serious about large scale rewilding, it’s going to need predators and those predators need to be protected by legislation. Ultimately, legislation needs to be backed up by severe consequences for any breach.
What does the current landscape of reintroduction and conservation of species, such as the lynx and wildcats, look like?
In Europe, generally, there have been some very successful moves to reintroduce the lynx and the project seems to be going well and gathering momentum. We’re hoping to follow that success in the UK. I think the outlook is looking very positive for the lynx across Europe. The wildcat is in more danger than people realise as there is a huge issue with hybridisation, as well as habitat fragmentation. I actually think there is a lack of awareness amongst conservationists, in that in Europe most wildcat populations are more hybridised than once thought. Therefore, they’re actually in a false sense of security.
We’ve studied the Scottish wildcat in detail and, for example, we now know that there are around 35 remaining in the wild, whereas previous predictions have been in the hundreds of thousands. Once conservationists start to look in detail at the wildcats, it is apparent that the state of the wildcat is far worse than people think. I think there needs to be a large-scale research drive to assess European wildcat populations, because at the moment we simply do not know what we’ve got.
The Lynx UK Trust has submitted the first licence application in history reintroduce the lynx back into the UK. We’ve followed the guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature to the letter; we can demonstrate:
- Widespread support from a diverse range of sectors;
- Economic benefits;
- Ecological benefits; and
- A world class team to deliver the project.
We’re confident of getting a licence granted this year and then we’ll be looking to our European colleagues to acquire lynx, most likely from Scandinavia. We’re looking to bring the lynx to the British Isles in 2019.
Dr Paul O’Donoghue
Chief Scientific Advisor
Lynx Trust UK