Forget the fictional Hound of the Baskervilles, Dartmoor now has a real beast of prey on the loose. The legendary hound was diabolical and terrifying, but people have nothing to fear from Flaviu the lynx, though there is much for him to fear from them.
When we animal advocates heard the news that Dartmoor Zoo’s newly acquired lynx had succeeded in a daring break-out-of-jail within hours of arriving at his new ‘home’, we were cheering him on, and mentally casting black spells over efforts to bring him back to captivity. Even zoo owner Ben Mee admitted he would secretly be “really proud” if Flaviu disappeared and made a new life for himself.
That was exactly two weeks ago and Flaviu is still living in the wild. So far police, zoo workers and volunteers, using helicopters, drones, baited traps, recordings of his mother’s call and even her bedding, have all been foiled by the clever big cat.
But now events have taken a worrying turn. The Mirror reports fears that gun-toting hunters are trying to track and kill the lynx, just to get a selfie trophy photo. Post-Cecil, you wouldn’t think anyone could be that heartless and stupid, but if this is the case I really hope the zoo finds him first.
Latest news: the zoo is appealing for donations. They need £5K for more motion sensor cameras to monitor trails and locations Flaviu is thought to be frequenting.
Not so long before Flaviu hit the headlines, I happened to hear on the radio that there were plans to reintroduce lynx to the wild here in the UK. Until then I didn’t even know the lynx is actually indigenous to the UK – though to be fair they have been extinct here since about 700 AD. In fact the animal was forced out of most of Western Europe by a combination of habitat loss and human persecution. The usual story.
Like all big cats, the lynx would win any beauty contest paws down. In the wild it can live up to the age of 10 years, and size-wise it’s roughly the same as a labrador dog. It’s tree-climbing ability, up and down definitely needs no assistance from the Fire Brigade! Because its favoured habitat is dense forest, because it emerges to hunt only at dawn and dusk, and because of its legendary elusive nature – perfectly illustrated by Flaviu – it earned the name in ancient cultures around the world as the mysterious ‘Keeper of Secrets’.
The Lynx UK Trust hopes to unveil the proposed site for a pilot release of the cat as soon as next month. Forests in Aberdeenshire and Northumberland are on the shortlist. ‘That’s when it gets really exciting,’ says Chief Scientific Advisor to the Trust Dr Paul O’Donoghue.
But why is this being done? Why rewild an animal, even one as iconic as this, that hasn’t been around in this country for thirteen centuries?
Now we’re talking apex predators and trophic cascades. In a nutshell, the lynx’s preferred prey is deer. Because deer have no natural predators to control their numbers here in the UK, they tend to be quite relaxed, and lounge around lazily in one place until it is stripped bare of vegetation. And why wouldn’t they? Why keep moving if the food is right there? But unfortunately that is destroying our wild places and forests.
Enter the lynx, and two things happen: firstly the lynx controls the deer population naturally without human intervention, and keeps herds healthier by taking out the sick and old. Secondly, the deer have to be more on guard and keep moving around from one feeding spot to another. “Suddenly, they’re pruning shears again, lightly cutting back the forest at a rate it can recover and sustain itself, all that green stuff starts to return, as do all the other animals that like to live amongst it, it’s called a “trophic cascade”, an event kicked off by the apex species at the top of an ecosystem, that cascades all the way down through it affecting every other form of life.”
This beautiful short video about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone narrated by George Monbiot, a true hero for the environment, explains an apex predator’s hugely beneficial effect on an entire ecosystem. Wonderfully exciting stuff!
If this is what we can hope for with the reintroduction of the lynx, bring it on. It can’t happen soon enough.
Inevitably, not everyone sees it this way. “Depending on who you ask, the Eurasian lynx is either a benign woodland wonder or a sheep-stalking terror.” The Guardian. Objectors are as you would suspect, farmers who fear lynx will take their sheep. (Actually sheep, along with the deer, are the main culprits in reducing our forest cover to only one third of the EU average.) The Lynx UK Trust says that research proves farmers’ fears groundless. While a lynx will indeed take a sheep or a lamb occasionally, they expect each cat’s tally to be just one sheep every two and a half years – for which farmers will be compensated.
In fact, the lynx may prove of benefit to sheep farmers by keeping down the population of lamb-predating foxes, as has happened in Switzerland.
So there will be no damage done to the local economy by the presence of lynx. Quite the reverse. The expectation is that the cats will generate “new eco-friendly industries such as wildlife tourism around their presence, breathing new economic life into remote rural communities.”
In any case the effects of reintroduction, beneficial or otherwise, will be small to begin with, since the Trust’s five-year pilot is for the release of just three male and three female animals. As the six will all be of breeding age, with a bit of luck we will soon have many more of these beautiful creatures in our wild places.
“We killed every single last lynx 1,300 years ago and hunted them purely for their pelts. We have a moral and ethical duty to bring them back. They are as much a part of the natural environment as ospreys and red squirrels,” says Dr Paul.
Wolves next? We live in hope.
A little prayer for Flaviu – Stay safe boy, stay safe.
Vote in Focusing on Wildlife Poll: Should the lynx be rewilded in the UK?
Sign here to support rewilding the lynx – petition to Natural England & Scottish Natural Heritage
3rd February 2017 The Guardian reports on deep splits in local community over planned re-introduction in Kielder Forest, Northumbria
9th November 2018