The landscape of Britain was once very different to what we see today. Ancient woodlands covered most of the country, and they provided homes to diverse ecosystems. But now biodiversity is at a historic low, and all the big fauna that once lived in Britain has gone. The lynx was hunted to extinction 1,500 years ago, bears around 1,000 years ago, and the wolf just 260 years ago.

For many, the absence of these wild animals is not an issue. Reintroducing predators is not a priority — and not exactly popular. An NFU spokesperson said: ‘The NFU is opposed to species reintroduction programmes that are not only expensive but have a high risk of failure’.


 

Balancing our ecosystem

However, there is a growing belief that the lack of apex predators (those at the top of the food chain) harms ecosystems and leads to the need for very expensive land management strategies. Could the lynx be the missing piece of the ecosystem?

This lack of apex predators has led to huge increases in deer populations. While biodiversity has been decreasing in the UK, the deer population has doubled between 1999 and 2020. This success would normally be celebrated. However, when one species expands beyond limits, the ecosystem becomes unbalanced.

Deer feed on young trees and with populations expanding, overgrazing removes the natural regeneration of trees. This has a large impact on native bird species, essential to woodland ecosystems. Studies suggest 50 per cent fewer wild bird species are found where deer are present. Overpopulation of deer has also been linked to the spread of Lyme disease, and 74,000 road accidents are linked to deer annually.

All of this damage holds significant costs, both financial and ecological. The damage to woodland alone is estimated to be £4.5 million in recent years. The government’s focus on planting millions of new trees is likely to vastly increase this figure. Deer culling has failed to stay on top of deer numbers and the demand for venison hardly comes close to making culling a viable business model. So the costs caused by overpopulation are likely to keep rising.

Why the lynx?

However, a very different approach could provide a solution; the return of long-lost species to the UK. Rewilding apex predators, such as the wolf or lynx, could keep deer populations in check, protect young tree growth and save many from the costs deer damage brings.

The lynx appears to be the prefect candidate to fill this role. Its natural prey is deer, it used to be a native species, and its natural habitat is woodland. The lynx is also smaller than another suitable candidate, the wolf, and would be easier to convince the public that they pose no significant threat to humans. Lynx, unlike wolves, do not hunt in packs, and are very reclusive, staying in heavily forested areas.

What about farmers?

One of the main arguments against reintroducing lynx to the UK is the danger to farmers’ livestock. In particular, there is a legitimate fear that they would hunt lambs and have a costly impact on farmers’ livelihoods. These fears are often accompanied by comparisons to Norway, where farmers annually claim compensation for up to 10,000 sheep deaths. Such compensation schemes, it is argued, are likely to be expensive.

Research and similar projects across Europe disagree.  In Norway, shepherds allow their flocks to freely graze in woodland areas. This is also the natural habitat of the lynx. Here in the UK shepherds keep their flocks in fields, making it less likely that they would come into contact with lynxes. Other more comparable schemes do not have these issues. In Switzerland, lynx account for just 25-50 deaths of sheep per year, and no licenses for the removal of problematic lynx have been required since 2003.

An AECOM report estimated that 38 lynx would incur a cost of just £757 each year. This plan includes paying farmers double the market rate for lost sheep. In comparison, an estimated £2.7 million would come from lynx-induced tourism and deer population management per year.

Saving our woodlands, and saving our pounds

In sum, the economic case for reintroducing lynx to British woodland seems clear. They will provide a natural and cheaper alternative to controlling our swelling deer populations. The danger to sheep is real but arguably minimal, whereas the prospective economic boom from savings and tourism is considerable.

The rationale is therefore simple. Bringing back the lynx would save our woodlands, and save us pounds!