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?

CT.

 


 

 



















46 comments:

  1. Another thought provoking post perhaps Spring watch should contact you to be a presenter. I'm all for the re introduction of past residents to the UK. It would be interesting to see the management over the reintroduction too. I suspect a lot of people would be up in arms at first. Now I never use slug pellets but I do water nematodes at the appropriate time of year I find it strikes a nice balance & that is my only interference. xx

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    1. I agree- the management makes all the difference. The good thing is with reintros already established in other countries there should be plenty of advice/ data/ info to help. XX

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  2. I see no reason why not. But as a farmer's wife I am not sure that the farmer would agree. When predatory animals like this did roam this country all that time ago, farmers found ways of protecting their flocks - and they could do so again given the right conditions and advice. People get very hot under the collar about wolves and the like, but the idea is not all bad. I shall be interested to see what others have to say.

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    1. I'd be very interested in his opinion Weave, if you have the time to find out and let me know. So much of conservation has suffered from antagonism between different parties. Listening to each other and finding a balanced way through is the best way forward I feel.

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  3. Another marvellous thought provoking post. I think I agree with the reintroduction of these large predators and agree that the balance between the needs of nature and that of mankind has for far too long been tipped in our favour. I read with horror recently that since 1970, my almost lifetime, half of the species that were present on the planet then have now disappeared. In a time when conservation issues have been never more highly publicised. So while I would welcome the Lynx - imagine the tourism implications! I would also say that we have to seriously adjust our lifestyle expectations and that is a long-term issue that individuals cannot maintain without state legislation but one that politicians will not touch because they can only think as far as the next election.

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    1. It's very sobering when you read the stats on biodiversity loss, and its implications for the human population too. I completely agree with you about changing lifestyle expectations. For me it's a simple choice- either make those alterations gradually now when we're still in charge, or leave it and be forced to do it with extreme measures later in panic mode.

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  4. I'm interested in seeing how this works out, even being from the US. Diversity is paramount for a healthy environment. But what of population density? I'm under the impression that lynx need plenty of room, so that a lynx can be a lynx, if you get my meaning. Very interesting subject to be sure.

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    1. They do need to roam, which is why the initial areas ear-marked are Scotland, Cumbria and Northumberland - all places with relatively low human population densities. I suspect Lynx would rub along just fine living cheek-by-jowl with people, because they are so shy. We have a Weasel family living on the outer edge of the garden here. I've seen one of them once in nine years. I know Lynx are bigger but as you know from your own experiences, wild creatures are experts at hiding themselves from people when they don't want to be seen.

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  5. Brilliant post, I agree whole heartedly with all of this. I used to love the rats when we had the allotment, we had a whole mass of them under the shed, nothing was more amusing than to see them all parading along the branches of the tree to get at the bird food. Most kids aren't taught nature these days, I remember learning how to identify trees by the various barks, I loved it all and still do.
    Briony
    x

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    1. I agree- the lack of nature-awareness in children is a big part of the problem. I can't understand why it isn't taught in schools as a subject. It is such an important one and we have so much more information available and data etc to give them, as well as the simple joy of being outside and being able to ID what it is you are listening to/ looking at. It's the background story to all our lives and so many people know little or nothing about it.

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  6. An excellent read, but I worry for any lynx population when you think about what happens to our raptors in this country. "Vicarious liability" ha ha ha.

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    1. That's such a good point, Si. I know some of the reintroduced wolf populations in other countries were killed illegally. Feelings run high on both sides of the argument, which is why the free availability of information and facts/ data is so important.

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  7. Brilliant, thoughtful post CT. Of course it always comes down to money. Everything is monetised, sadly. I wholeheartedly agree with you and love the thought of these fabulous creatures bring reintroduced. Let me know when you're marching on Parliament - I'll join you 😊.

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    1. Definitely. I discovered a taste for political marches last year in Winchester :o) X

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  8. 1-2 kg per day is a lot of mice :)
    But would they also go for birds?
    I have seen more deer in our woodland over the last year than in the previous three put together. Possibly they are getting more used to human contact, or maybe our managed thinning of the trees has made them easier to spot. But at the moment sightings are almost a daily occurrence. Please don't get me going on the squirrels..
    Climate change could ultimately be a bigger threat to the balance of nature than even people are.

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    1. Climate change....caused by humans....

      A valid question re predation on birds. I haven't been able to find a conclusive answer. There's plenty of claims out there for both yes and no, but real, quantified data, I'm not sure. It doesn't seem to fit their hunting pattern, but most creatures are opportunistic to a degree I guess. I did learn there has never been a recorded attack by a Eurasian Lynx on a person or a dog, and that sheep attacks average 0.5 a year elsewhere in Europe. Any livestock lost to Lynx would be compensated for under the provisions of the reintroduction. Incidentally, deer cost farmers in East Anglia £3m p/a in lost crops. It's my understanding that the deer population across the country has exploded in recent years and is now a serious problem, hence the requirement for the Lynx. I too see them every day. If all else fails you can point the Lynx in the direction of your squirrels and mice :o)

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  9. Brilliant post CT. I'd love to see the balance redressed in some way, and to have lynx in this country again would be amazing. We always like to watch the rats at the wetlands place, they love picking up grain from the feeders. There's a long catalogue of things man has done to make things worse, it would be good to see one or two positive things. Sadly a lot of things can't be righted. No chance of getting rid of deer and rabbits. When I helped out in a coppiced woodland a while back they were fencing the newly cut hazel to give the new shoots a chance to grow. CJ xx

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    1. We do the same here when we coppice hazel otherwise it just doesn't grow. Dormice need new hazel growth and without it they don't do so well. It'll be interesting to see what happens with the Lynx this year. I think we will get there, eventually.xx

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  10. Gosh this ecology stuff really is complicated isn't it. So many things to consider and so many implications! xx

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    1. Lots of potentially conflicting needs is the heart of the problem, combated by needing to see the bigger picture xx

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  11. I have been following the case for and against re-wilding for some time CT and I am definitely for it. As a species we still have yet to grasp the intricate webs and ecosystems that support life, including our own, upon this very small speck called earth

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    1. That's such a good point about not yet fully understanding the intricacies of natural connections, I think it underpins all of conservation and folk's reaction to it.

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  12. Terrific post today.
    I see this where I live. We are endcrosching the animals who were here first. We can not be killing the animals and critters that make the whole circle of life happen.
    It hasn't been going too long but they have been trying to reintroduce the Big Horned Sheep in the mountains near me.
    I have Lynx mosing through my land. Only we call them Wild Cats because they are the mascot of the University of Arizona.

    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

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    1. If we hadn't killed off all our Lynx 1300 hundred years ago people wouldn't blink at having them here now- you get used to what's around you I. I envy you having them around.

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  13. Another fabulous post! The balance - or lack thereof - needs to addressed, no question. I hadn't thought of GB's lack of large predators until you wrote of it, but yes, I can see why that would be a tremendous problem.

    We have coyote here, as our large predators and they do excellent work keeping deer populations in check. They also, as their habitats are increasingly encroached upon, do well in urban areas, often nabbing cats and small dogs. (!) - which, as you can imagine, makes them rather unpopular. BUT, the point is -- we've encroached on THEIR habitat and so they're simply adapting.

    Farmers are allowed to shoot/trap coyotes on their land, although I fail to see how they're a genuine threat as no-one free-grazes livestock anymore. I think sighting one is enough motivation for most farmers. :/

    Anyway -- all that to say, there's bound be a Giant Fuss over re-introducing lynx, but I sincerely hope that the fuss will be set aside. Wolves were successfully re-introduced in various places and have done amazingly wonderful things for the ecology of those places -- I'm sure you've seen the video of how wolves effect river flow?! Brilliant stuff. And all proof that removing even one link in the chain throws the whole thing off -- and not in a good way.

    I could go on forever about this. But you know where my heart is. xoxo

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    1. That cascade effect is all important and the research done on the Wolves of Yellowstone was crucial in opening people's eyes to what happens when you reintroduce an apex predator into a landscape that doesn't have one. We've got the same argument here over Beaver, which will become more pertinent the more we have these major flooding events. Our Government seems to think you can build houses anywhere and nature will simply comply with their wishes. It's very frustrating. XX

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  14. Oh, you do write some interesting stuff. No snakes or moles in Ireland? Bejaysus, I was born there but I never knew that. I do approve of re-introducing these species, but I fear many would be killed by morons, gamekeepers etc...

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    1. I think you're right about people trying to kill them, sadly. But education goes a long way to challenging and ultimately changing people's attitudes and good research to back up the arguments is the best way to do it.

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  15. Interesting and thoughtful post. I wonder why man is happy to see certain creatures reintroduced and not others. Who are we to make such choices? I think we as a species has so much to answer for and as you say our expectatons on lifestyle are so different now that it doesn't allow room for much wildness does it?! Children as well as adults rarely have much contact with the wild and so cannot have much understanding of how we are simply a part of the equation and not the lords of all we survey.

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    1. Getting kids outside and connecting with The Wild is crucial if we are to keep up the momentum of protecting our wild things for future generations. I worry about the gap that's growing between people and nature.

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  16. I find the concept of rewilding and the re-introduction of extinct species, such as lynx, really fascinating. There was a great article some time last year in BBC Wildlife Magazine about the obstacles that would need to be overcome in lynx reintroduction. I do hope they can go ahead but sadly I suspect there may well be opposition from the farming community! It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

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    1. There's already opposition from some in the farming community. NFU Scotland in particular have been pretty vocal about the Lynx. I hope they will put prejudice to one side and engage fully with the information being put forward. Deer damage their crops and livelihoods too (perhaps not so much in Scotland though) so it isn't just woodlands that would benefit from having a proper predator back. As you say, it will be interesting to see what happens.

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  17. Very interesting and thought-provoking post CT. I'm sure deer are more numerous and are becoming more used to people. Nowadays I often find myself in close proximity to deer in woodland and we stand and stare at each other. I'm sure 25 years ago that wouldn't have happened. 15 years ago when I took on my allotment I knew many older people with shotgun licences who would shoot deer and rabbit which would end up in the local butchers and I know that hardly happens anymore. My allotment is adjacent to ancient (recorded in Domesday) wooded common land now owned by the NT and it is disheartening to see the damage done by squirrels and deer to self-generated trees. We don't eat much meat but when we do it is often locally shot pheasant or venison. I have never eaten squirrel but I have skinned and eaten catapulted rabbit and braised pigeon breast is delicious. Do you think part of the problem might be that we are so divorced from the natural world. Sometimes I think humans could do with a bit of re-wilding. I honour and respect our natural world and have never been afraid of close encounters with any native species but I do remember almost 30 years ago when I was in BC Canada for work I was taken to watch the salmon leaping and my guide had a gun in case of bear attack. Now a Canadian colleague has bear visit his garden! Or maybe that should be the other way round. His garden has encroached into bear territory due to pressure on land to build houses for our growing population. It is very complicated finding a balance, but yes, I would like to see Lynx reintroduced.

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    1. The point about us encroaching on wild territory is at the heart of all of this. I worry that if we aren't careful all that will be left of The Wild will be dedicated parks, like theme parks. That kind of fragmentation would be terrible, and it wouldn't work. We have to realise that if we want to carry on as a successful species there has to be a balance struck between the needs of the human population and the Wild ones. We've had it all our way for far too long and look what's happening as a result.

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  18. Great post CT. Since 'we' can't cope with foxes or badgers I'd find it hard to see how 'the massess' would cope with this and our Gov would soon want to slaughter them all.
    I'd love to see wolves, lynx and bears too, living wild and happy, but just look at the fuss about a few beavers.
    I'm afraid the UK is too land greedy to accept that it should be creating a balance of nature, wind turbines, fracking and the rest take first place every time. I really feel and with great sadness that the UK is not the place for these wonderful creatures.

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    1. That's a good point too about the Beavers. BUT they got a stay of execution which gives the WLT time to study them and collect the necessary data which will show what a benefit they are to riparian and therefore other habitats. I am optimistic about the Lynx but agree it won't be done without a struggle. I think plenty of people would support it if they understood what was involved and why. Education, education, education :o)

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  19. Hi there!
    A very interesting and thought provoking post full of really great historical information!
    We forget the lost animals of the British Isles - and many introduced species that impacted largely on the native ones!
    Rabbits are the source of many issues in Australia too!
    Re introducing an old species in theory I'm all for but my concern is how will it affect the changed land and landscape and the fact humans largely exist where this kind of animal roamed freely!
    My friend lives in Tahoe, California and bears - who still roam as they always have - but there natural habitat is being built on and has changed - and now people get aggravated because they find bears on their verandas and hibernating in their gardens!
    Terrifying I'm sure but it was their habitat first!
    I would hate to see a species re introduced to then be persecuted !!
    People need to be informed and much more needs to be taught at school level so our tolerance of wild life changes for the better!
    Re introduction without this could prove worse! :-)

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    1. I love the story about the bears hibernating in folk's gardens. You are so right about it having been their space first- have you seen the video of the Ellie's in Africa who walk through the middle of a new hotel because it was built on one of their ancestral routes? x

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    2. Hi there

      Yes I have seen the elephants in Africa...I think it was amazing and sad at the same time. What stunned me was the lack of interest the elephants took of the human element...just focused on their journey. Too right.
      xx

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  20. Hey CT,
    I've read your beautifully written and thought provoking post several times. And read all comments and replies too. I read Feral last year, which was an interesting plea for the re-introduction of large predators back into the UK. Obviously I am in the go for it camp, but I suspect politics and fear mongering will scupper any real advances.
    Leanne xx

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    1. I've read Feral too and couldn't get on with it, but I am interested in the principle of re-introductions. For them to have any hope of working though a balance has to be found and that probably means we won't see wolves or bear back in the UK but we may see Lynx. I hope so, because I think the land needs it. xx

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  21. I agree with you wholeheartedly. A very well written piece. Myself and my youngest daughter were discussing the possiblity or introducing Lynx only yesterday.
    We surely need to do something :(

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    1. That need is the driver. Hopefully even the politicians will be able to see that.

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  22. I wanted to leave a grown up comment in reflection of your balanced, well written grown up post. However, you said 'Wolves' and I'm scared of wolves. So I'll allow you a lynx or two but no wolves TYVM

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    1. Ah now you shouldn't be scared of wolves Rach, they are wonderful creatures (but thank you for the Lynx :o) ) xx

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  23. What a wonderful piece. I for one would love to see the lynx along with many others re-introduced back to the UK...I think it is about time we started giving back instead of just taking...I think the more we give to the land the more the land will ultimately give to us.

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x