In Britain we are renowned for our love of animals. One need only glance at the TV to see a myriad of programmes covering the bizarre and the beautiful, and the majesty of the natural world. However, one animal is currently splitting opinion in the UK – The Eurasian Lynx.
The lynx became extinct in Scotland in the Medieval period and there is now an ongoing debate as to whether they should be reintroduced. The proposed plans put forward by the Lynx UK Trust would see the release of 18 of these enigmatic predators into Scottish Woodland following similar reintroductions throughout Europe. Proponents of the plans have argued that the lynx will predate on pest species such as the large deer population and on invasive (species not originally from the UK) species such as muntjac and rabbits. In doing so, this could reduce the economic damage inflicted on forestry, for example, by reducing the number of deer fences.
However, there are problems with this argument. It has been 1,300 years since the lynx went extinct, and their reintroduction would likely have similar effects to introducing an invasive species. Invasion biology (the study of invasive species) is as yet unsure as to how to predict the effects such an introduction. For example, whilst a recent British Deer Society Commissioned Report concerning lynx in Europe puts forward a variety of potential prey species, it is very difficult to predict what species a particular introduced animal will predate upon. This was witnessed in a biological control attempt across the tropics in which the rosy wolf snail was introduced to islands in an attempt to remove the invasive giant African snail. This snail predated both on the invader but now also severely threatens endangered native species despite our best efforts. Indeed, one of the few unifying conclusions that can be drawn from invasion biology is just how unpredictable introduced species can be.
However, this unpredictability may work in favour of the lynx. Indeed, sometimes introduced species can have a positive effect on the ecosystem. Take for example the recent reintroduction of wolves to the breath-taking Yellowstone national park. The wolves predated on massive elk populations, causing these populations to relocate, thereby reducing grazing on willow trees which beavers need to survive. As a result, beaver populations have increased, and in doing so they have changed the hydrology of the rivers throughout Yellowstone thanks to their damn building. This cascade effect has been positive so far, but it all came as a complete surprise to park managers and biologists alike.
Despite this, concerns have been raised over the cost of such an endeavour. Whilst there have certainly been many successful reintroduction attempts for other species, for example the spectacular return of red kite populations to the UK, many are less successful. Critics have argued that the lynx, an animal of “least concern” on the IUCN Red List (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) is not worth the cost of reintroduction, especially when success is far from guaranteed and given that the final outcome may in fact be negative.
In order for these plans to go ahead the Lynx UK Trust needs the permission of the Scottish Natural Heritage. Even if these plans are approved, I would implore the Lynx UK Trust to first wait and see the fate of European introductions. Whilst these lynx populations are currently stagnating, it is important to remember that species introductions often include a lag phase before a rapid expansion. We are given the rare opportunity to observe the full range of impacts of this introduced species before we commit ourselves. Let us take this opportunity and wait until the European lynx saga has run its course.