The Eurasian lynx is so-called because it has been found in forests that stretch from Europe to central Asia, thus distinguishing it as the widest-ranging cat on our planet. Despite this, the species disappeared from Great Britain during the Middle Ages due to habitat loss and excessive hunting, according to the Journal of Quaternary Science. Now British scientists, spearheaded by the conservation group Lynx UK Trust, are pushing to have the Eurasian lynx reintroduced into the British Isles, especially in the Scottish wilds.
A quartet of lynx species exist worldwide: the bobcat (Lynx rufus), the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) and the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). Largest of them all is the Eurasian lynx.
With acute hearing and eyesight, Eurasian lynx are highly skilled hunters. They dine on wild ungulates, or hoofed animals, like deer. They also supplement their diet by preying on foxes, rabbits, hares, small forest animals and even birds. Interestingly, the Eurasian lynx is Europe’s third-biggest predator by size, just behind the brown bear and the grey wolf.
As an apex predator, Eurasian lynx are valued by conservationists and ecologists for significantly influencing the distribution of other organisms in an ecosystem. In this way, Eurasian lynx can effectively help in the control of deer populations, culling the old and the weak.
Eurasian lynx were eradicated from the British Isles due to hunting. Populations of roe deer, their preferred prey, were vastly diminished by the 19th century, hence destabilizing lynx livelihood. Lynx fur was also in high demand during previous centuries. This fur trade, understandably, had catastrophic consequences on lynx populations in the Britain of old.
Across continental Europe and into central Asia, where the Eurasian lynx still exists, there are many threats to their survival in the wild. For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List cites human activity (agriculture, mining and quarrying, roads and railroads, logging and deforestation, hunting and trapping) as adversely affecting Eurasian lynx populations through increasing urban sprawl, habitat loss and human-induced climate change. These are followed closely by disease and competition from invasive species.
In the United Kingdom today, legislation frowns upon the commercial hunting and trading of lynx fur in the British Isles, so these felines are now better protected. Besides, with contemporary Scotland as the home to the majority of British forests, the Eurasian lynx is likely to thrive there in the available habitat. Even more favorable, Scotland has an abundance of roe deer and other types of ungulates that are in drastic need of natural culling, which is how the Eurasian lynx can play a vital role in the natural ecological processes.
The Woodland Trust has documented that roe deer had almost been eradicated from Britain due to overhunting, up until the 19th century. But roe deer have since made a strong recovery in population numbers after their reintroduction into Britain. Now, their population density has since become exceedingly high, from a lack of natural predators and the absence of large carnivores in the UK.
No surprise, then, that these roe deer have become a pest, overgrazing and thus unhinging the regeneration of the woodlands. The habitat damage these roe deer bring requires that a large carnivore — their natural predator, the Eurasian lynx — be brought in for ecosystem equilibrium.
Of course, there is opposition to lynx reintroduction, particularly from farmers who worry about their livestock. Scientists and stakeholders allay these concerns via reminders that the primary prey are roe deer, whose populations are bountiful in the Scottish countryside. These elevated numbers of roe deer would keep the lynx too occupied (and full) to meddle with farm animals.
As for the uneasiness on whether these predatory felines would harm humans, the counterargument, once more, is that these cats prefer rural areas and tend to avoid encounters with humans, instead opting, by nature, to focus on the roe deer.
There are some Brits who are apprehensive about the Eurasian lynx becoming a competitor to the Scottish wildcat, Scotland’s only native cat, for it, too, is a denizen of the woodlands. Scottish biologists have been striving to alleviate these qualms, pointing out that both the Eurasian lynx and Scottish wildcat can coexist peacefully, mainly because their prey selection is different.
As Lynx UK Trust explained, the lynx reintroduction program is in the early stages, directed towards selecting reintroduction sites via careful evaluation and modeling approaches, as outlined in Biological Conservation journal. The reintroduction will be “soft releases” of the Eurasian lynx, meticulously monitored during trial runs before the program goes full-tilt. This transitional period will help scientists and conservationists work closely with local landowners, farmers and citizens of Scotland through education programs to help make the reintroduction initiative sustainably successful.
Overall, the Eurasian lynx reintroduction plan holds great promise. Only time will tell what their long-term impact shall be on the Scottish and overall British landscape.
Images via Flickr