The Lynx Effect

Lynx tracks in Jalisco, Mexico

The last few days have a seen flurry of articles and blog posts railing against proposals for the reintroduction of the native Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and other large predators to the British Countryside. I can understand why, but equally as a rewilding advocate I can see the other side of the argument.

On his blog, Wulfstan’s Ghost, David Eyles provides us with a long, two-part article on whether wolves and lynx should be reintroduced to the British countryside. As usual with David, it is well-written and carefully researched even though he cherry-picks his data and examples to prove his point; not surprising really given his farming background. Meanwhile, Josie Appleton provides a dreary polemic, focused mainly on the return of bears to the Pyrenees and the implications for local sheep farmers, but with the general message that rewilding and reintroductions are somehow an attack on civilisation. I have responded to this here to provide a little by way of balance with Mark Fisher providing links to the evidence. And then in Sunday’s Guardian, Catherine Bennett jumps on the bandwagon with her characteristic spin on things in a rather poorly written commentary that skips excitedly from wolves to Putin and back to wolves again. This very much appears as if it were written in a rush after two large espressos. Catherine has form here as her spectacularly misinformed piece on rewilding from January 2009 demonstrates with its ecologically-illiterate spectre of fish-gobbling beaver. However, the main object of her invective in yesterday’s piece seems to be reserved for George Monbiot’s popularity and so could be put down to professional jealousy. Finally, Liam Stokes (Head of Shooting at the Countryside Alliance) provides what is quite a thoughtful and well-informed piece[1] on how the return of the lynx, should it ever happen, needs to go hand-in-hand with game interests. Critically, Liam recognises that there is an opportunity for something else for him and his chums to shoot should numbers become large enough to provide a sustainable population to hunt, justified of course as predator control. Nonetheless, he is careful to urge caution (so as not to upset the sheep farmers?) and then pushes his own brand of conservation that centres on management for shooting and hunting interests.

None of this is especially new but does seem to speak to a rise in the background noise heard in the press and online media that questions the feasibility of reintroducing lost species to the British Isles. It came to a bit of head for me last night with a Twitter “spat” between myself and a lady from Germany[2] after I tweeted a negative comment on Bennett’s article. She challenged me over a number of issues, but the one that stood out was the primacy of humans over nature and the right for animals to have a painless death. To be fair, I suspect from her posts and correspondence with David Eyles (including a number of extremely graphic images of suspected wolf kills – see Part 2 of David’s blog) that she has suffered terribly from losses to her own flock, so I cannot blame her and she has my sympathy. Nonetheless, I’d like to draw a few points out of the discussion and these recent articles.


What rights of humans over nature?

One of the common themes seems to be about the primacy of human interests over nature. Many people who voice opposition to reintroductions, and especially those of predators, often cite how we humans have modified the British countryside to such an extent that any wildlife that exists therein does so solely at our behest and goodwill. The argument goes that we are the prime species and so every other species must fall in line with our grand plan. If it doesn’t and is perceived as somehow being a threat to, or in competition with, our use of the land, then it must be managed. If we cannot control such a species then it has no place alongside us and so must be exterminated or imprisoned. So, it is with the wolf, the lynx and the bear. They are large predators that could possibly kill livestock or attack a human. Yes, all human life is sacred and we should do all in our power to preserve it, but does this extend to biocide? I was asked the utterly nonsensical question whether I would prioritise the life of my own child over the life of a predator. Who wouldn’t? But, first I would take appropriate steps to avoiding the possibility in the first instance or at least weigh up the risk and priorities involved[3]. The ethical and moral questions here is to what extent do we control all that is wild in order to remove threats to ourselves and our activities? It would appear to some people, that large predators belong only in zoos and safari parks where they can be safely controlled and gawped at through 3m high chain link fencing.


Reintroductions, dislocation and conflict

While there is something worryingly wrong and arrogant in people who promote human primacy over nature, I can associate with some of the fears and concerns over reintroductions of large predators into areas where they have long been made extinct. I live in a predominantly rural area and there’s a farming background in the family, albeit a couple of generations back. It is a wholly understandable argument that states we have in the past rid the land of these animals for a reason and so why would we want to bring them back after all these years. There is an undeniable risk that they might kill livestock and the remoter possibility that they may attack people[4]. Such livestock losses could adversely affect people’s livelihoods in a sector that is already in a parlous state and any human casualties would be tragic. There are also some ecological reasons why we might not want to do so, foremost of which is that the habitat is perhaps no longer suitable or that there might not be enough natural prey to eat. There is also the ethical argument that states it might not be in an animal’s own best interests to be reintroduced into a hostile landscape and culture that has forgotten how to coexist with them. We shouldn’t be surprised when they end up being illegal shot or hunted as has happened recently when a bison wandered over the border from Poland into Germany[5]. We cannot therefore overlook these arguments.

However, the Habitats Directive (of which we are still signatories) states that we should at least consider the feasibility of reintroducing extinct species where these extinctions have come about through human action. There are some strong ecological arguments for wanting to do so. This includes re-establishing trophic cascades, controlling ungulates and meso-predators and improving successional habitats. Some of these will have beneficial effects on natural processes, tourism and ecosystem service delivery with net benefits to the wider economy. There is also a strong ethical argument that says if we have made a species extinct in part of its natural home range then we damn well ought to consider putting it back. Just as with the opposing arguments above, then we cannot also ignore these that are in favour.

Unfortunately, in many cases the arguments just seem to generate conflict across the yes/no divide of species reintroductions and these are made all the more difficult by the fact that we are an island nation. As I’ve said before this means that wolves or lynx will not end up on these shores unless we choose to bring them here[6]. On the continent it is a very different matter where relatively densely populated countries such as Germany, France, Denmark and The Netherlands have seen wolves making more of an appearance, often migrating into new territories from eastern Europe. These countries have developed their own wolf management plans to deal with the challenges posed by a growing predator population but this doesn’t mean there haven’t been conflicts as Josie’s article and @A_Girl_Insane’s photos amply demonstrate.


Key differences

The difference here is between natural reintroductions (i.e. by natural in migration) and deliberate reintroductions (i.e. those facilitated by human action) with perhaps stronger ethical reasons to support the former. I say this as it is us humans who, after all, have ultimately invaded their territory rather than the other way around. This is inevitably where most human-wildlife conflicts arise as attempts by humans to settle increasingly marginal lands brings us into direct conflict with large predators and other wildlife. Where we dislocate wildlife into other areas it may then bring them into direct conflict with humans and our livestock. We see this most in developing countries where burgeoning populations looking for new land from which to gain a living, run into direct conflict with large animals. Potentially dangerous encounters inevitably ensue, often leading to the death of the animal(s) in question after people are hurt or crops damaged. If we extend the argument of Josie and @A_Girl_Insane then these animals are also a threat to humans and so should be exterminated or confined behind wire where they can do no harm.

Many people take a different view stating that we should learn to live with these animals and put lots of money into international conservation projects and charities protecting tigers, elephants and other animals. If we could do the same here in the UK and Europe then we would at least have something of a leg to stand on, but if we don’t why should other countries? We perhaps need to lead more by example rather than dictat and “conscience” payments.


The good nature:bad nature dichotomy

The final point @A_Girl_Insane made that piqued my interest was that she somehow thought of wolves as “bad” animals because they are carnivores and therefore need to kill to survive. Admittedly, being hunted by a pack of wolves and being torn apart, often while still alive, cannot be a nice way to go, but that’s nature… red in tooth and claw. Have you ever watched a blackbird with a worm? Poor worm! The difference is we can more easily associate with the deer or the sheep that is being killed and eaten by the wolves. In the case @A_Girl_Insane she has anthropomorphised her flock and by calling them “my girls” presumably feels more than the usual empathy between shepherd and flock when viewed purely as a unit of production? Thus, we risk demonising large predators because of what they stand for and what they do to survive. For them, a deer or a sheep is just food, while a dog is competition and so must be dispatched. It is hardly surprising that they’ve therefore ended up on the wrong side of “civilised” thinking.


What price safety?

For me, a world without an element of risk is a dull world. I’ve chosen to seek out the thrill of walking and camping in wolf and bear country. This was a risk, albeit a calculated one, that I was willing to take and one that I will take again and again given the opportunity. It is the same reason I climb mountains, ski down them, ride motorcycles. To feel alive! If that kills me, so be it. “When you dead, you dead”[7].  I simply couldn’t imagine life without being able to do these things. The fact that I have to travel abroad just to be in wolf and bear country is, to me, a great shame. I am however, pretty much resigned to that being the case during the remainder of my life (excluding perhaps the lynx, though I suspect I’ll be old and grey before even that happens). These are, however, personal choices and herein lies the crux of the matter as far as people are concerned. What right do I have to impose my will on others? It is for this reason that it is necessary to ensure that the majority of people want reintroductions to take place. At what scale we apply such a majority rule (national, regional or local) is another matter entirely!

[1] Liam Stokes (2017) “The Lynx Effect” Shooting Times, September 2017. 38-40.

[2] @A_Girl_Insane …a David Bowie fan perhaps?

[3] I have taken my family deep into wolf, bear and lynx territory on numerous wilderness trips in the past and they have benefited enormously from it, learning backcountry skills, humility and self-awareness (as well as some good campfire tales and one-line put downs of Twitter trolls).

[4] There is virtually zero chance of lynx attacking people though the chance that it may happen with wolves and bears is real enough, though still slight.

[5] Local police shot the poor beast since they didn’t know what to do with it and feared it might present a risk to public safety. Germany has form here with the infamous case of Bruno the bear who was also shot by hunters after it too wandered over the border into Bavaria from neighbouring Austria.

[6] Carver (2014) Making real space for nature. ECOS, December 2014. 4-14.

[7] Guy Martin (2015) When you dead, you dead. Random House Publishing. The phrase is apparently a saying from Guy’s Latvian grandfather!

One thought on “The Lynx Effect

  1. This is one of the most coherent, concise and thoughtful pieces I have read on this issue. Admittedly, it is always going to be easier for a fellow supporter of rewilding to win me over but a thoroughly enjoyable 5 minutes nonetheless.

    Our Duke of Edinburgh Bronze and Silver Award students have been out in the Carpathians this week, camping where wolves and bears roam. Occasionally they see bears at a distance, more commonly they come across paw prints. How I wish British pupils had such exciting wildlife opportunities at home. (I teach at the British School of Bucharest.) I’m taking a group of year 11s to the Danube Delta for three days tomorrow too, many of whom will have just returned from their D of E expedition. How lucky they are to have so many wild places on their doorstep – Though it really should be the norm, not a privilege.


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