Missing Lynx: Farmers Worry About Plan to Return Big Cats to Wildlands

Conservationists want to bring lynx back to the U.K. after a millennium away, but livestock owners are afraid of potential predatory consequences.

A Eurasian lynx and her cub. (Photo: Valentina Petrova/AFP/Getty Images)

Mar 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that nature is out of balance in the United Kingdom.

Throughout the island nations, overpopulated deer have run amok—all 1.5 million of them—causing massive amounts of damage to forests and agricultural crops in England and Scotland. Fences don’t stop them, and bullets can only do so much.

Is it time to call in the original deer-control cavalry?

Some people think so. They link the origins of the deer “plague” to the extermination of Eurasian lynx in Britain more than a millennium ago. The 50- to 60-pound cats (which, yes, can take down a small deer without too much effort) were wiped out in the U.K. for their fur somewhere between 500 and 700 A.D.

Now the Lynx UK Trust wants to bring them back, talking with landowners in England and Scotland interested in hosting three small, experimental populations of the cats to see if they can help bring the British countryside back into balance.

“At the moment, Great Britain’s forest ecosystems are broken,” Paul O’Donoghue, lead ecologist with the Lynx UK Trust, told Wired. “The lynx is the best tool to add some balance to the forest ecosystem.”

Still, some livestock owners aren’t convinced that “rewilding” is the best solution. They worry that lynx could overrun the landscape and target easier prey than deer—namely their livelihood.

“We have outdoor pigs, lambs, and game birds, and that seems the ideal menu for a lynx,” Andrew Blenkiron, director for Euston Estate in England, told the Eastern Daily Press. “We already have enough of a challenge from foxes.”

But are the farmers’ fears well founded? Not if you compare the lynx plan with other examples of predator reintroductions, said Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

“There are about 18,000 sheep in Northern Idaho,” she said. “Over the past seven years, we’ve lost less than 30 sheep to wolves.” Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho beginning in 1995.

“I think lynx would be more manageable than wolves,” Stone said. “There are a lot of things livestock owners can implement to protect their stocks.” One easy tip: Get a dog. “Lynx have an instinctual fear of canines.”

To ease concerns, Lynx UK Trust has promised to compensate livestock owners if a lynx attacks their animals. Getting livestock owners on board with the program in the early stages could help avoid conflicts and bad blood between conservationists and ranchers further down the road, Stone said.

“This doesn’t have to be controversial,” she said. “Bringing stakeholders to the table helps them understand the real threats and gets them involved in overall management before there are lynx on the ground.”

There’s no word yet on when the first lynx will make their way to the U.K., although the trust hopes it will happen before the end of the year. The organization is conducting genetic testing of lynx in mainland Europe to see which population of cats might be best suited for return to England.

Meanwhile, it is conducting an online survey to gauge the public’s attitude on the reintroduction. The early results are promising: About 80 percent of respondents say they support the plan.