Tuesday, 12 January 2016
Could Lynx Be Back In GB In 2016?
The flora and fauna of the British Isles has been shaped by people for the last 7000 years. Before that, it was the great ice sheets that defined what was here and what wasn't. When the ice retreated and before the people came, the sea decided, by rising up and creating the Islands we call home today. What was here before we were cut off from the Continent remained here; what wasn't didn't make it. This is why there are no snakes or moles in Ireland but there are in England, Scotland and Wales- they couldn't move fast enough to colonise Ireland before the waters rose and separated the two land masses.
Right from the time people began to arrive here they altered the landscape. First by hunting grazers and apex predators like Aurochs, Elk, Bear and Wolf into extinction or near-extinction, then by cutting down vast tracks of the Wildwood to create fields for crops and grazing animals, and finally by bringing new species in.
By the time the Iron Age arrived the UK has lost 50% of it's woodland cover; by the time the Normans were here that figure had risen to 85% and by the start of the 20th century it stood at 95%. Now we're back up to something like 13% woodland cover, although of course you can't replace an Ancient Woodland with a new one (despite what Boris thinks) and hope to get anything like the biodiversity back that you've lost (at least not in the short term).
This changing land use was driven by the need to provide resources to meet the demands of a growing population. The more people on the Islands, the greater the pressure on the land. It's the same problem we face today. How to balance the needs of people with the needs of The Wild (but I would argue that the two aren't as different as some might think).
Unfortunately, as soon as humans alter the landscape they effect change in the ecosystems they rely on to provide their food, water, air, temperate regulation and soil. And invariably this change isn't positive. Ecosystems are the sum of their parts: remove or unbalance one element and the whole thing destabilises.
The reduction in numbers/ ultimate removal of large grazers and the apex predators who fed on them during the Neolithic created a cascade effect in the land that was felt right down to the smallest plant at the bottom of the food chain. A cascade effect we're still feeling today.
The list of species eradicated here by people is significant. Wolverines disappeared from Britain in 6000 BC. Aurochs went in 1000 BC. Elk in 1500 BC. Brown Bear in 1000 AD, Lynx 400 AD, Wild Boar 1300 AD, Beaver 1300 AD and Grey Wolf 1680 AD. And of course we're still losing species today. Smaller species and so perhaps less immediately obvious to most people as a result, but they are going nevertheless, and at a faster rate than at any point in the last 7000 years. I bought a butterfly ID book a few weeks back that was published in 1967. At least two of the species listed there are seen no more on these shores and The Duke of Burgundy butterfly, once a common woodland species, is now on the red list as endangered and near extinction.
It isn't just the removal of species that has unbalanced the way our ecosystems work. We've also brought things in that really haven't helped us.
When the Normans arrived here in 1066 they introduced rabbits and fallow deer. Rabbits are prolific grazers that prevent plants from growing. On a SSSI not far from here, baby Juniper trees have to be protected from rabbits inside wire mesh cages if they are to have a hope of surviving. Juniper, a native species, is not doing well here. It needs all the help it can get. On another site, rabbits nibble down plants crucial to Chalk-specialist Blue butterflies (think Kidney Vetch, Horseshoe Vetch and the Small and Adonis Blues). These butterflies can't exist without these specific plants, so too many rabbits = bye bye flutters.
But while rabbits are a nuisance, it's deer that have become the more significant and wide-reaching problem. Every managed woodland I know here locally has a stalker who works at certain times of the year to control deer numbers, but they are losing the battle.
Deer eat their way through new saplings and our woods are not regenerating as a result. Most species require a mosaic of habitat heights and ages to flourish. A wood where everything is old and getting older does not provide that and many species that rely on new or young trees (Wood Larks, Black Caps, Dormice, Sparrowhawks) are either predated more easily as a result, or are pushed out of their optimum habitat and forced to compete with better adapted species for new niches where they have lower chances of survival.
Deer trample and consume woodland flora too. Three of our four species of wood spurge have declined to the point of virtual extinction over the last hundred years and 1% of our vascular plants and ferns have gone in the last 300. This is not solely due to deer of course, but they are part of the problem. And the reason deer are such a problem is that we've removed the apex predators who would otherwise have controlled their numbers for us.
In the 1870s, the Victorians introduced Grey Squirrels to parkland. Greys out-compete the native reds which are now hanging on in a few areas of the country. They also destroy trees by stripping them of bark. I've seen this in action in an ancient woodland near here and believe me, they are very effective at killing trees. There are natural predators still here who will take squirrels, notably Goshawks and Pine Martens. Or they would if we hadn't hunted both species to near-extinction during the 19th Century (largely because they were seen as a threat to Game birds) and then took most of their habitat away in the 20th. Pine Martens are pretty much absent from England these days with fewer than one hundred believed to still be here. I've never seen one.
The concern over woodland regeneration, habitat quality and ecosystem services (the provision of food, water, air, waste removal, soil etc) has led to a huge debate among conservationists in recent years on the benefit/ importance/ likelihood of reintroducing apex predators and keystone species to the UK.
Part of the problem is that we've become increasingly isolated from the natural world and as a result, we have no proportionality in our thinking when it comes to The Wild. People scream when a hover fly comes near them. Hover flies are harmless. People 'ewww' when they see a beetle, little realising that a world without beetles wouldn't function- they clear up a vast amount of the detritus that would otherwise expand and be a perfect vector for disease. Similarly slugs. Gardeners reach for slug pellets which poison hedgehogs and kill birds, but did you know that not every species of slug eats your plants? Many of them feed on garden rubbish, being adapted for decaying matter not fresh. Two years ago I overheard a father telling his daughter that bats were birds without eyes, and when I wrote a post about the rats in our garden a while back people expressed the opinion that if I didn't 'do something' about them (ie put down poison) they'd be in the house before I could blink. They weren't of course, but it is a good example of the hysteria and lack of understanding or proportionality people increasingly have about The Wild.
The real problems happen when the balance that nature is so good at maintaining gets knocked awry by people. Yes, too many rats in your garden isn't good in the same way too much of anything isn't. Yes, they carry disease (but so too do hedgehogs, birds and deer and no one screams about killing them indiscriminately) and if outdoors food is scarce and they can find it indoors they may come in to your house. But rats have their own predators who will keep those numbers in check, provided we haven't removed the habitat they need to operate in or so degraded it that it is impossible for them to use it.
So we're left with reintroductions to try and put right some of the damage that we've inflicted onto our land.
We've just about been able to hold on to the wild populations of Beaver in Devon and Scotland (what Beavers do for river ecology is worthy of a post all of its own, particularly with all this rain and recent flooding) but most of the Wild Boar who escaped from farms in recent years have already been shot. There are some populations left but not many. It seems highly unlikely that wolves will come back, because the perception among people of them being blood-thirsty monsters who hunt people is strong, if misguided. But there is a chance that we'll get Eurasian Lynx back.
The Lynx Trust is seeking to gain permission for a five-year trial reintroduction in parts of Scotland, Northumberland and Cumbria, following the hugely successful pattern previously established in Sweden and Norway. The incentive for the Government, who don't seem to be able to grasp the critical nature of the situation our wild things (and so ultimately we) are in, is financial: eco-tourism around Lynx is HUGE and would pull in millions to the areas ear-marked for them.
Lynx are not predators of people; they hunt deer, specifically roe deer but they will take other species of deer too (including the native Red). Farmers are worried they will take sheep, with the NFU Scotland citing examples from Norway where thousands of sheep and lambs are predated every year (although it should be noted this figure includes predation by wolves), but the reality is that the sheep predated in Norway were kept in woods, and we don't have a strong tradition of keeping sheep in woodland in the UK. We're also only talking about a handful of Lynx being reintroduced, at least initially. Each Lynx consumes 1-2 kg of meat a day on average. Sheep weigh between 45-100 kg and roe deer 22kg. Livestock predation from wolves has been reduced by running dogs with the herds (plenty on the internet about it if you want to check it for yourself). If Lynx did prove to be a problem to sheep (if, as the NFU states, we start running flocks in woodland for eg), perhaps this is a potential solution to that problem?
Lynx are woodland hunters who prefer to lie in wait in deep cover and ambush their prey from above. They are secretive and nervous of people and so are rarely seen. They are also crepuscular (hunting at dawn and dusk) which keeps them out of people hours by and large.
I would like to see them back in this country. I think we need them. I think we can find a way to make it work while safe-guarding farmers' livelihoods. We certainly need to do something to rebalance the scales after more than 7000 years of tipping them in what we thought was our favour, but which, this century, we are at last realising wasn't.
What do you think?