Bri­tain’s long-ex­tinct lynx on brink of re­turn

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRIFF WITTE

kielder, bri­tain — Kielder For­est of­fers some of the wildest land­scapes in all of Bri­tain, a “Lord-of-the-Rings”-es­que tableau of squishy green moss and soar­ing dark spruce where os­preys rule the skies and bad­gers, ot­ters and adders skit­ter through the bram­bles be­low.

But it’s not wild enough for Paul O’Donoghue. “Too tame,” he scoffed.

Imag­ine, the con­ser­va­tion­ist sug­gested, a 60-pound cat — its ears tufted, its fur dap­pled — slink­ing through the un­der­growth, sharp­en­ing its knife­like claws on the near­est tree and oc­ca­sion­ally dart­ing out to plunge its teeth into the throat of an un­sus­pect­ing deer.

“How ex­cit­ing would that be?” he asked, leav­ing the un­stated an­swer to hang in the lonely still­ness of the sum­mer woods.

For 1,300 years, such scenes have been ab­sent from this is­land, ever since the an­ces­tors of the mod­ern Bri­tish hunted and killed ev­ery last lynx. But now, the wild­cat could be poised for a come­back.

Within months, Eurasian lynx could be roam­ing this land once more thanks to a plan, spear­headed by O’Donoghue, that would mark per­haps the most au­da­cious species rein­tro­duc­tion ex­per­i­ment in the na­tion’s his­tory. Like the re­turn of the wolves to Yel­low­stone, suc­cess would of­fer a po­tent sym­bol, amid fears of an unstoppable mass ex­tinc­tion of species world­wide, that the tide can still be turned.

“This project of­fers a glim­mer of hope, and it sig­nals a huge change in our coun­try. We’re start­ing to re­pop­u­late Bri­tain with true na­tive species,” said O’Donoghue, a 38year-old PhD in con­ser­va­tion ge­net­ics whose sun­burned face and un­ruly dark beard give him a feral look that jibes with his love of all things wild. “The lynx could be­come am­bas­sadors of

Bri­tish con­ser­va­tion.”

But to oth­ers in this un­du­lat­ing stretch of ex­pan­sive green fields, an­cient stone walls and lush conif­er­ous forests along the Scot­tish-English bor­der, the sym­bol­ism counts for lit­tle. For farm­ers, the lynx rep­re­sents lit­tle more than a pesky varmint that will feast on the an­i­mal that sus­tains much of the lo­cal econ­omy: sheep.

“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘This must be the cra­zi­est idea any­one’s ever had,’ ” said Den­nis Salt, a sil­ver-haired 61year-old who owns a 550-acre sheep farm abut­ting Kielder, the for­est into which the lynx would be re­leased.

And noth­ing he has learned in the two years since the pro­posal was in­tro­duced has changed his mind. Sci­en­tists may in­sist that the for­est-dwelling lynx are poorly suited to prey on sheep in an open field. But Salt said he doesn’t buy it.

“Sheep are ex­tremely slow,” he said. “If a lynx has the op­tion of go­ing af­ter a lamb or a deer, it will go for the easy meal. There’s no two ways about it.”

The is­sue has sparked pas­sion­ate de­bate in this ru­ral com­mu­nity, torn be­tween the lure of restor­ing a vi­tal el­e­ment of the Bri­tish coun­try­side as it ex­isted long be­fore sheep held sway, and the fear that do­ing so could jeop­ar­dize liveli­hoods.

The ques­tion could soon come to a head. On Mon­day, O’Donoghue’s group, the Lynx UK Trust, submitted an ap­pli­ca­tion to Nat­u­ral Eng­land, the gov­ern­ment body that reg­u­lates species rein­tro­duc­tions, to re­lease six Eurasian lynx into Kielder For­est. A de­ci­sion could come within the next sev­eral months.

If the pro­posal is ap­proved, four fe­male and two male lynx would be rounded up in Swe­den — where a wild pop­u­la­tion thrives — and flown to Bri­tain. Fit­ted with GPS col­lars, they would be mon­i­tored for the next five years, dur­ing which time the pop­u­la­tion could nat­u­rally grow.

“We want them to breed,” O’Donoghue said. “Those ba­bies will be proper Bri­tish lynx — not lynx with a Swedish ac­cent.”

It’s been more than a mil­len­nium since the world has known a proper Bri­tish lynx. The an­i­mal was once preva­lent from the north­ern­most tip of Scot­land to the south­ern coast of Eng­land, but re­lent­less hunt­ing by chilly me­dieval Bri­tons seek­ing to en­velop them­selves in the warmth of a lynx pelt doomed the species.

“We killed ev­ery last one of them, which is an em­bar­rass­ing and shame­ful thing to do,” O’Donoghue said. “We now have a moral obli­ga­tion to bring them back.”

O’Donoghue has worked on con­ser­va­tion ef­forts around the world, from the Ama­zon to Africa to Alaska. But bring­ing back the lynx in his home coun­try has been his pas­sion project; he dreams of the day when Kielder is known as the “King­dom of the Lynx.”

If the plan goes ahead, it would be the high­est-pro­file species rein­tro­duc­tion to date for a coun­try that, be­cause of its is­land sta­tus, has more con­trol than most over which an­i­mals take up res­i­dence.

Bri­tain is also a coun­try with more ground to make up than most. The crowded is­land that is home to mod­ern-day Eng­land, Scot­land and Wales has lost much of its orig­i­nal bio­di­ver­sity, with teem­ing forests that once dom­i­nated the land­scape hav­ing long ago been con­verted into cities, towns or sheep-strewn graz­ing lands.

It’s only in re­cent decades that Bri­tain has be­gun to re­verse a bio­di­ver­sity de­cline that was cen­turies in the mak­ing. Bus­tards were gone for 185 years, and beavers had dis­ap­peared for 400. Now they both thrive. Species of cranes, kites and ea­gles have been brought back from the brink. Some even ad­vo­cate the re­turn of wolves and bears, though not any time soon.

It’s a story that has been re­peated across Europe, North Amer­ica and other af­flu­ent re­gions, said Chris Thomas, a bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the University of York.

“The em­pha­sis has shifted. Con­ser­va­tion has the up­per hand in the wealthy parts of the world,” he said. “There’s a move to­ward greater ac­cep­tance of living with big, wild an­i­mals.”

The phe­nom­e­non, he said, of­fers some hope that species be­ing hunted to the edge of ex­tinc­tion in less de­vel­oped parts of the world may be spared if living stan­dards rise and hu­man pop­u­la­tions sta­bi­lize.

The Eurasian lynx is not among the planet’s en­dan­gered species, hav­ing al­ready un­der­gone a re­nais­sance in con­ti­nen­tal Europe. But its re­turn to Bri­tain, Thomas said, would none­the­less be a pow­er­ful em­blem — one that also could ben­e­fit the ecosys­tem by help­ing con­trol deer pop­u­la­tions that have surged in the ab­sence of preda­tors, dec­i­mat­ing forests in the process.

The lynx would be the top cat in the Bri­tish wilder­ness — an apex preda­tor that, size-wise, would far eclipse the coun­try’s other land-based car­ni­vores, in­clud­ing the badger, the Scot­tish wild­cat and, of course, the ubiq­ui­tous fox.

The po­ten­tial down­sides, mean­while, are min­i­mal, Thomas said. A lynx may kill the oc­ca­sional sheep, but noth­ing com­pared with the vast num­bers lost an­nu­ally to dis­ease, mal­nu­tri­tion and ex­po­sure.

“The life of an up­land sheep is not con­stant bliss,” he said. “They get stuck in bogs. They fall down gul­lies. All sorts of things hap­pen.”

That view has not stopped sheep farm­ers from mount­ing a sus­tained cam­paign to block the lynx rein­tro­duc­tion. Their ef­forts have per­suaded the lo­cal mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, Guy Op­per­man, who has de­nounced the idea as “lu­nacy.”

But oth­ers living in or around Kielder have em­braced the lynx — even com­ing to see the preda­tor as a path to greater pros­per­ity for an area where the econ­omy has long been in de­cline and the for­est, de­spite its beauty, has failed to at­tract large num­bers of vis­i­tors.

At the An­glers Arms — the only pub in the small and tidy vil­lage of Kielder, which the for­est en­cir­cles — pro­pri­etor Michael Brown dis­plays a life-size cutout of the lynx to show cus­tomers that the an­i­mals aren’t quite as big and scary as some may fear.

“At first, peo­ple thought, ‘Oh, lion- or tiger-type things. They’ll be com­ing into the gar­den and killing the kids,’ ” said Brown, a trim and tat­tooed 44-year-old Bri­tish army vet­eran.

Brown said opin­ion has grown more fa­vor­able as res­i­dents have de­bated, at times heat­edly, the pros and cons. He’s an en­thu­si­as­tic backer, be­liev­ing the lynx can of­fer a badly needed boon to tourism.

“Things have to change, be­cause if they don’t, this vil­lage will die,” he said.

Never mind that lynx are noc­tur­nal and that the notoriously se­cre­tive cats may be only marginally less elu­sive than when they were ex­tinct. If Bri­tain’s lynx pop­u­la­tion is re­born here, Brown pre­dicted con­fi­dently, the peo­ple will come.

“It’s the Loch Ness ef­fect,” he said. “How many peo­ple have seen the mon­ster?”

“We killed ev­ery last one of them, which is an em­bar­rass­ing and shame­ful thing to do. We now have a moral obli­ga­tion to bring them back.” Paul O’Donoghue, Bri­tish con­ser­va­tion­ist who sup­ports rein­tro­duc­ing lynx to the coun­try’s forests

GRIFF WITTE/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The area around Kielder For­est, the site of the pro­posed rein­tro­duc­tion, abounds with sheep farms. Many farm­ers wor­ried for their stock adamantly op­pose the plan.

ARTERRA/UIG VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Eurasian lynx thrive on the con­ti­nent, but Bri­tain’s were hunted to ex­tinc­tion in the Mid­dle Ages. A bid to rein­tro­duce the species to the isle has gone be­fore the state.

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