The wise don’t build their houses upon sand

Lynx_MFile+Kvaale

I read with some disbelief the other day that a charity called The Lynx Trust is planning to release lynx into the wild in various parts of Britain. Seems a tad daft to me, for various reasons.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about urban foxes. They’re cute and cuddly, and remind us of our pet dogs, and it’s lovely to see fox cubs rolling around on the lawn and coming for the scraps that people put out for them. They do also sometimes rip open rubbish containers, but they’re still cute, aren’t they? Of course, they are opportunists (like most wild animals), and will steal chickens, and occasionally enter houses in search of food, where they sometimes leave their smelly scat or urine behind, and that’s not quite so cute. Very rarely, they will threaten human children1. Basically, it’s never a good idea to encourage wild animals to get too close to humans, but there you go, people will do it. But whatever the downside, foxes are a part of our native wildlife, and play an important role in the whole ecology thing.

Now imagine a different wild animal roaming freely here. A very large, wild cat which comes in at 80-130cm in length, stands up to 70cm at the shoulder, and can weigh up to 40kg2. We are talking about a feline which is described as a very powerful and efficient hunter, and is roughly the size and weight of a large male German Shepherd dog.

Lynx are magnificent animals and remarkable hunters. Their preferred habitat is forest, and their preferred prey is deer, which they like to ambush, sometimes dropping onto them from above. Well, we do have a problem with deer in some areas, especially Muntjac, and it might perhaps be nice to have a predator able to keep their numbers under control in a natural way, but at what price? Isn’t it possible that having run out of food in a particular area that they might turn their attention to other options? Isn’t it also possible that they will learn that human settlements provide easy pickings? I have no illusions that a wild cat the size of a lynx, would voluntarily keep away from farms, or from domestic pets. Cats are smart, and they are adaptable.

The Telegraph ran a news item which claimed that “every pet in the UK is to be insured against lynx attacks“, and I have heard enough from my American friends to know that where decent-sized wild predators are, it’s likely that sooner or later they will run foul of humanity, most likely when their food supply is short. Sometimes, they turn to farm livestock, and sometimes to the easy pickings that our pets offer, so I do not doubt that this will be a clear and present danger in areas where lynx live3.

There is also the question of what this would do for our other wildlife, much of which is already struggling badly. Suppose the lynx stay where they’re put and don’t come out of their forest habitats to snag themselves a pet cat, or a dog? What happens then when the supply of deer runs low? Well, presumably they will eat what they can find, which is likely to be birds and small mammals of various kinds. The problem is that our fragile food pyramid is trembling at the foundations already. You see, almost at the bottom of the heap and feeding those on the next step up are the insects, and we have lost 45% of our invertebrates in the last 35 years. Germany reports a greater loss. Plenty of environmental scientists are concerned about this, but so far we have no realistic plan on how to halt that decline. If the insects do not recover, the species which rely on them to live will also be lost. We are already losing our wild birds at a very rapid rate, so do we really need to add another predator into the mix – one that is on the top tier of that pyramid?

The Iberian Lynx (the one they want to introduce) is a protected species, so once it’s here, there will be precious little anyone can do about it. Will they eventually become so troublesome that they have to have to begin culling them under licence? If the lynx do become a problem and they don’t cull, will we simply see a rise in illegal hunting – which nearly always results in the cruel and inhumane treatment of the hunted, as well as trespass and damage to private land (as has been seen with illegal hare-coursing)? As with illegal hare coursing, will this go along with threats and maybe violence to landowners and anyone who tries to interfere? Well, all this would have to be policed, wouldn’t it? My feeling is that since they are a ‘big cat’ and their fur is valuable, we’d see illegal hunting anyway.

Now, those who know me know that I am very much in favour of the conservation of species, but while Britain certainly used to have a wild population of lynx, they were hunted to extinction 1,300 years ago. One thousand, and three hundred years ago. Since that time, an awful lot has changed here, including the fact that the human part of the equation has expanded enormously and encroached upon the territories of all kinds of wildlife, to the point where our native wildlife being frozen out, and the predators are being persecuted and killed, right, left and centre: badgers culled, foxes poisoned, birds of prey shot from the skies. The wildlife that is left to us is struggling to survive in an ever more hostile, ever shrinking environment. Not only that, but we have a whole different ecology going on now than the one that was in place over a thousand years ago, because at that time, much of our sceptered isle was covered in forest (which, you will remember, is the habitat of the lynx). Heck, long after that time, the whole landscape of the country changed dramatically again, with the Enclosure Acts of the 16th to 18th centuries creating bigger fields, fewer trees, and parks and gardens being landscaped all over the place! So why, in the name of the deity of your choice do we need a large re-introduced predator thrown into the mix – especially one whose natural habitat has shrunk so much4?

Don’t they realise that Muntjac deer themselves are a troublesome introduced species? I am reminded of that old nursery song:

“There was an old woman who swallowed a fly … ”

So far we’ve had ‘re-wilding’ schemes to bring wolves, lynx, and wild boar back to our countryside, all large, awe-inspiring creatures which can capture the public imagination5. This is building upon a sand foundation. We need to begin the re-wilding from the bottom up, by working on conserving our invertebrates. You know, those tiny many-legged creatures whose presence goes largely unnoticed (until they get in the way) and yet who make life possible for all of the rest of us, including the wolves, lynx, and wild boar. None of us would survive long in a world without insects. Don’t believe me? Read this.

1 In London a few years back a pair of twins were badly mauled by a fox

2 For those who don’t do metric, that’s 31-51 inches in length and standing up to 27 1/2 inches at the shoulder, and weighing up to 88lb (6 stone, 3lb)

3 It does happen, in areas where there are lynx

4 I refer you back to the place where I said that predators tend to cause trouble when food is short, and remind you that natural wildlife habitats in the UK are shrinking

5The buzz-word for this type of animal is ‘charismatic megafauna’ because the world is full of nature-lovers who really only care for the furred, feathered, or leathered. We’re talking lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, turtles, and so on.