Stuart Benn, from RSPB North Scotland, brings us this blog on lynx - a closer look at their possible reintroduction to the UK. All photos were taken by Pete Cairns.

For the last few years, I’ve been one of the people within the RSPB thinking about whether lynx could ever be reintroduced to the UK. During that time I’ve spoken to many others both here and abroad, listened to their experiences and learned from what they had to say – it has all been very helpful and illuminating. However, by far the most useful advice I’ve heard is that ‘working with carnivores is 10% biology and 90% psychology’. To fully understand how big cats or wolves can survive in our modern landscapes you really need to understand people, their beliefs, motivations and backgrounds.

This was brought home forcibly with the recent escape of ‘Lillith’, an 18 month old lynx from a zoo in Wales.  The events of the following two weeks, culminating in her being shot dead, told us a little bit about lynx but a lot more about people.

According to press reports, on or about 29 October, the young lynx scaled a tree in her enclosure and then “made a giant leap over an electrified fence”. Despite the deployment of search parties, trackers, thermal imaging equipment and baited traps, Lillith largely evaded detection – sightings were few though one of these was by a local farmer who, within a week of her escape, said that he saw her in his fields next to seven dead sheep. He blamed their deaths on the lynx and this call was taken up by the Farmers Union of Wales and the National Sheep Association who said, “There cannot be a clearer warning of the damage lynx will do if they are released into the wild.” 

By 11 November, Lillith had moved into ‘a heavily populated area’ and the decision was taken by the local council to kill her as she “presented an even greater danger to the public”. The council’s decision provoked substantial reaction online with the majority condemning her killing, whilst students at Aberystwyth University held a vigil for her. However, the killing of Lillith was supported by the Farmers Union of Wales who said that the lynx could have attacked a child and, “it is no coincidence that the places targeted for campaigns to release lynxes are remote rural areas” and “if they are really as harmless as some people say, why aren’t we considering their release in heavily populated areas such as Surrey”.

Let’s try and unpick some of these statements. I think it can be agreed that lynx are undoubtedly elusive – I have stood outside pens that held lynx but have been unable to spot them even though they only had some shrubs for cover. I have spoken to people who have lived and worked in lynx country all their lives who have never seen one. To see a lynx is an extremely rare and unforgettable experience. 

The other assertions don’t bear up so well under scrutiny, even allowing that Lillith was born and bred in captivity and perhaps might not have behaved precisely as a wild animal would nor that Wales is considered an unsuitable place to reintroduce lynx were that ever to happen. Only one sheep of the reported seven was sent for post-mortem and, though it was said to have died from ‘traumatic injury’, the cause of that could not be established. Whilst lynx can and do kill sheep, their preferred prey is roe deer with them killing one every three days on average. In parts of Europe, lynx and people live alongside each other in areas more heavily populated than Surrey without any issue. Millions more (including many Britons) holiday amongst lynx (and, incidentally wolves and bears) without a second thought.  

So much for the facts, but as we’ve seen, those are only likely to take you so far – predators divide people and how you relate to them depends chiefly upon your world view and that will dictate which facts you wish to believe. 

That may seem like a rather pessimistic perspective with the future being no more than a ping pong match between proponents and opponents of lynx reintroduction as they defend their position with no end in sight.  But I don’t see it like that, and my optimism stems from experiences elsewhere.

The UK is not unique in the issues we would need to address in any discussion about lynx reintroduction – what effect do they have on deer and livestock, how are farmers compensated for agreed losses, what is their value to tourism and marketing, how do they impact upon smaller predators like foxes? All these and more have been looked at abroad and addressed. 

But, most tellingly, there they have been discussed and addressed in a collaborative manner with all the main players round the table building a common knowledge, plugging information gaps, drilling down into people’s hopes and fears, working through issues, agreeing ways forward, building trust, taking time, listening.  I think that is the model we must follow here not the old-fashioned ‘top down, we know what’s best for you’ or scaremongering approaches. 

And at the end of all of that a decision would be reached which might be not to proceed with a lynx reintroduction if there are just too many irresolvable differences, or it could be to move on to a trial and wild lynx would be back in the UK after a gap of 1000 years. Either way, it would provide a new way of working amongst all these seemingly disparate sectors and that is an extremely laudable aim in itself.    

  • Agree totally with Ian S, an excellent blog. It means that people like myself who would simply love to see wild Lynx back in the UK, need to work hard to win over the doubters and some of the opponents. One can never win over all the opponents that have an antideluvian attitude towards  wildlife anwd carnivores in particular but we must start on that road on convincing people how to live with our fellow creatures and why they have just as much right to be here as we do.w

  • What a very well considered blog. If everyone was as level headed as this, then perhaps some rational decisions could be taken. Ian