Over the few years, a battle has been quietly simmering between farming communities and a conservation organisation who want to reintroduce the Eurasian lynx to the UK. The cats have been extinct in the UK for well over a thousand years, and while farmers worry that the big cats will threaten their sheep, Lynx UK – the trust behind the plans – argue that the animals would help the economy, and cause little damage to livestock.
But now Defra secretary Michael Gove has rejected a request to release six lynx into Kielder Forest, in Northumberland. The reasoning given for their decision included a lack of support from locals and major landowners, adding that the ‘socio-economic benefits of the trial were unclear’. There were also worries about funding and the lack of a coherent plan to monitor the animals. Sheep farmers and the NFU are rejoicing at the decision.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Lynx UK will give up on their bid to reintroduce the cats to the UK: as their chief scientist Paul O’Donoghue commented, ‘there were several failed license applications for beavers before they were eventually reintroduced, so this is only the beginning of our journey’.
But the reintroduction of lynx to the UK has always been an emotive subject. Despite Lynx UK arguing that any claims that the cats would kill sheep were ‘baseless’, you simply need to look at other countries where lynx still exist to see where their worries stem from.
In Norway, for example, it’s estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 sheep are killed annually by the country’s 350 lynx – a total of around 20 sheep per animal, per year. From 2001 to 2014 the Norwegian government paid out over 200 million kroner (around £20 million) to farmers in compensation for lost livestock. And if Lynx UK’s plans aren’t fully costed and funded, how could they hope to refund farmers for their loss of livestock?
But forgetting about farmers for one minute; what about the rest of the public? Do you remember the furore, when a lynx escaped from a wild animal park in Wales, last year? Various papers described the ‘dangerous and wild lynx’ as ‘fearsome’ adding that it ‘could eat pets’. (Potentially true; again in countries where lynx do exist, a number of people have claimed that lynx have killed their pet cats. In fact, Lynx UK have said themselves that ‘In a few studies domestic cats have emerged within lynx diet but lacking any corresponding reports of pet cats going missing; an explanation could be that these are feral cats.’). If one escaped lynx in rural Wales can generate that many headlines, what will the public make of six of the animals?
I completely understand why people want to reintroduce certain species that have been made extinct; beavers, for example. But when it comes to reintroducing larger predators, it’s a far more serious prospect. Reintroducing lynx without a fully funded and monitored plan is simply reckless – so well done Mr Gove for seeing sense. James Delingpole might not be very pleased with the Defra secretary so far, but he has certainly made a sensible decision here.