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Should wild predators like the lynx be released in our countryside?

PUBLISHED: 09:05 07 August 2020 | UPDATED: 09:48 07 August 2020

The WildEast movement has reignited the debate over whether the Eurasian lynx should be reintroduced in East Anglia. Picture: Erwin van Maanen

The WildEast movement has reignited the debate over whether the Eurasian lynx should be reintroduced in East Anglia. Picture: Erwin van Maanen

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Should long-lost native predators like the lynx be reintroduced to the East Anglian countryside? New nature movement WildEast hopes to reignite the debate about these controversial creatures.

The idea of once-extinct native predators prowling around East Anglia’s wild countryside once again has excited conservationists and nature lovers for many years.

But what benefits would they bring, and what impact could they have on fragile ecosystems and farming businesses?

That debate has been reopened by nature movement WildEast, which aims to restore 20pc of East Anglia to the wild and explore the potential for reintroducing species including the bison, pine marten and Eurasian lynx – which has become the emblem of the organisation.

The elusive cat was once a feature of the British landscape, but has not been seen here for around 1,300 years, forced out by habitat destruction and human persecution.

The Wild East project aims to make East Anglia one of the world's great nature reserves. Pictured (from left) are trustees Ollie Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy. Picture: Mark CatorThe Wild East project aims to make East Anglia one of the world's great nature reserves. Pictured (from left) are trustees Ollie Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy. Picture: Mark Cator

Farming and landowners’ groups argue that bringing more predators into the countryside would threaten vulnerable small livestock such as poultry, lambs and piglets, as well as rare and threatened wildlife.

But conservationists believe they could restore ecological balances that existed for thousands of years before mankind’s domination of the countryside, keeping invasive species under control and forcing prey animals to revert to more natural behaviour which could, in turn, help other flora and fauna to thrive.

And while fencing could protect people from large grazing animals and compensation schemes could mitigate the actions of predators, they said it would be necessary to accept some risks if we wanted to live in a wilder world where nature co-exists with agriculture and eco-tourism.

Hugh Somerleyton, owner of the Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft and a founding trustee of WildEast, said: “Since 8,000 years ago when Britain split from Europe, we have hunted these apex predators out completely because of our island status,” he said. “So the memory of those things is a lot further back, and in that time we have become incredibly good farmers and gardeners. That is the DNA of Britain. We love to manage the land and to beautify and control it.

Reintroducing predators like pine martens could help other native mammals like red squirrels to thrive, said conservationists. Picture: Iain LeachReintroducing predators like pine martens could help other native mammals like red squirrels to thrive, said conservationists. Picture: Iain Leach

“The negative side of that is the desire to be good farmers pushes back the openness to wildlife. In Scandinavia or Germany or France they are all living with wolves and in middle Europe they are living with lynx and bears. If the Europeans can do it then we can do it.

READ MORE: Wild ambition to turn East Anglia into one of the world’s greatest nature reserves

“The myth about how wolves, let alone lynx, interfere with stock is so big compared to reality. That is not to try and shoot down the genuine and reasonable opposition – lynx will at times come and take a lamb and a wolf will at times come and take something bigger and that is an unavoidable consequence of living with the two systems cheek by jowl. But the reality of what they take compared to what is reported or mythologised is a tiny fraction.

“If there were lynx in the Brecks now, not great numbers but one, two, three, four pairs, the reality is it is almost 100pc guaranteed that no-one would have any idea that they were there because they are so secretive and elusive. Most people who go on lynx safaris in middle Europe come away without having seen them. So I think it is mostly a cultural thing.

The WildEast movement has reignited the debate over whether the Eurasian lynx should be reintroduced in East Anglia. Picture: Erwin van MaanenThe WildEast movement has reignited the debate over whether the Eurasian lynx should be reintroduced in East Anglia. Picture: Erwin van Maanen

“There was once a time when we were so terrified of these things that we had to band together to combat them or eat them. We were living as part of the landscape of fear, and it is only recently we have become the apex predator completely, and we still relish that power. The challenge is turning that into conservation. It is far more rewarding, rather than wiping creatures out, to live alongside them and accept that has some risk to how we have been used to living.

“I’m not suggesting this is an easy road, and it is not likely to happen quickly. But we want the WildEast to be the first region to take on these challenges and we need to talk about them openly.”

READ MORE: Show the world your amazing work for wildlife, urges new nature movement

Lord Somerleyton is installing fences at Fritton Lake on his estate, where he plans to introduce water buffalo later this year, while exploring the longer-term goal of bringing bison into the re-wilded enclosure.

He said reintroducing large grazing animals could play an important role in a wilder countryside alongside predators like the lynx and pine martens.

“It allows nature to thrive in a more bio-dynamic fashion and that removes the need for us to go and do it for them,” he said. “For the last 50 years we have been trying to be the husband of nature rather than enjoying it running riot on its own.

“For example, pine martens are, for some people, a pretty vicious tree predator and no-one is arguing that they wont affect bird populations. The argument is that in driving out grey squirrels they can have a far greater positive impact on bird populations by that single act than they would in their own right as destroyers of birds. It also allows the red squirrels to thrive because although pine martens will predate on reds the reality is the reds are so light and small and can easily exist in the fringes of the canopies of the trees where pine martens won’t go, whereas greys are too bulky so they are more easily predated on. That is a good example of a ‘trophic cascade’ impact.”

‘A REASONABLE CASE TO BE MADE’

Derek Gow, an ecology consultant who is working with WildEast, said there are “no credible programmes at the moment anywhere in Britain to look at reintroducing anything bigger than a wildcat” – but he believes the lynx is a creature that should be discussed and explored.

“We have completely wiped this island clear of everything that conflicts with us,” he said. “If we were connected by a land bridge to continental Europe there would be wolves here now. They would be coming right the way through landscapes that are just as intensively developed as ours, with plenty of people, plenty of livestock, plenty of infrastructure, and they are not causing civilisation to collapse. So I think there is a perfectly reasonable case to be made for having a discussion about predators, and it is a discussion that should not just be abut one or two people jumping up and down and screaming about sheep.

“There is nothing straightforward about reintroducing lynx – you would have to consult publicly with people, you would need a reintroduction project that takes into account some level of compensation so if there were particular flocks of sheep that had suffered losses then you would have to pay people for it, but it would have to a be a system that is not open to corruption.

“It comes down to what kind of world do we want to live in? One where there is nothing left alive other than a few insects and a few birds, and everything that kills a chicken has to die too? At some stage if we don’t want to just disappear from this earth ourselves, we are going to have to start to view nature with a much greater degree of tolerance than we ever did before.”

FARMING OPPOSITION

A previous plan to reintroduce the lynx to Thetford Forest was dropped by the Lynx UK Trust in 2016 following opposition from farming and landowners’ groups, who argue that bringing more predators into the countryside would threaten vulnerable small livestock such as poultry, lambs and piglets, as well as rare and threatened wildlife.

Andrew Blenkiron, director of the nearby Euston Estate, said farming objections to the possibility of new predators remain unchanged.

“It would be a big challenge,” he said. “I think it would be devastating in reality to introduce that sort of predator if there is no mechanism put in to control them. It would be nigh-on impossible to contain species like the lynx with fences, so could you put breeding restrictions on them to make sure they didn’t breed and get out of hand? All of this would be a challenge.

“A massive proportion of the outdoor pig sector within 15 miles of Thetford would be threatened, because one of the easiest targets for a lynx would be young outdoor piglets. The argument has been made before that they could help control muntjac numbers, but why would you chase after a muntjac when you could pop into a pig arc every night?

“We already get challenges with foxes taking piglets from outdoor units, and it is the same story with lambs when you get to lambing time. Then I would be really concerned for game birds as well, and then you look at things like stone curlews and lapwings – why would they not take a young chick from all of these species?

“We are significantly challenged by foxes and other predators without something else looking for an easy feed stock.

“We need to ask: Why did these species become extinct here? It is because they pose such a challenge to delicately-balanced ecosystems. I think we need to focus on the reintroduction of the lower species first that would be the feed stock of these ultimate predator species long before we think about reintroducing the predator.”


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