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Lynx in Northumberland - bringing the wild back into our wilderness?

Hundreds of lynx could once again prowl in our county - by Abbey Oxley

Experts claim their reintroduction to Kielder Forest would benefit the ecosystem, control the deer population and boost tourism.

The idea of bringing the wild back into our wilderness has been gaining momentum across Europe. Populations of wolves, bears, lynx and beaver have been growing massively thanks to re-introductions and habitat conservation efforts. Wolves have spread across the continent after a brush with extinction in the wild, and now boast a population of around 200 in France alone, while the European bear population has more than doubled in the past forty years. Now, in the UK, a strong case is being made out to return European lynx. A number of experts have found that a healthy population of around 400 could easily be established in the Scottish Highlands, where dense populations of deer and thick, low-lying conifers create an ideal habitat. This population could extend as far down the UK as Northumberland's own Kielder Forest, if a natural woodland corridor linking the two habitats was created. The cost of the re-introduction could easily be offset by the long-term savings from deer-culling and the income gained from increased wildlife tourism to areas surrounding their population.

The Lynx UK Trust has already submitted an application to Natural England to introduce a small population of just 6 individuals to Kielder Forest, so we may see Lynx back in our forests by the end of the year. Lynx are doing well on mainland Europe. However, the argument for returning them to our landscape does not rest on their survival in the wild, but instead focuses on what lynx can do for our ecosystem, as well as the joy of having a majestic wild cat back in our woodlands. 

Evidence from the European Journal of Forest Research suggests that wild predators, such as the lynx, are better at controlling roe deer populations than the costly and laborious culls we currently undertake. Lynx could manage deer populations more effectively than we humans, and aid in the regeneration of our forests by protecting them from over-grazing while saving us a great deal of money in the process.

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However, both the National Farmers Union and the National Sheep Association have voiced concerns around animal welfare and the negative impacts lynx could have on farming. Fears that lynx will cause free range sheep increased levels of stress and prey on livestock or game have made the idea unpopular among farmers. One of those who has spoken out against it is the influential County Councillor John Riddle, who himself farms near Bellingham.

Studies of the hunting habits of the lynx suggest that these fears may be somewhat unfounded. As an ambush predator the lynx waits in dense foliage to pounce on prey that wanders past, rarely leaving the cover of the trees. It therefore poses little threat to any livestock that is kept in an open field outside of wooded areas, and is seldom even seen by human eyes. The incidence of lynx preying on domestic livestock is extremely rare, and as their preferred prey is the abundant roe deer it is unlikely that lynx will be drawn to livestock in the UK.

A major concern raised by farmers in an already struggling industry is the financial losses they may sustain through increased levels of predation. However, it is likely that compensation will be provided to farms that do lose animals to lynx as they are to farms that lose animals to foxes, floods, fires, or disease. While public opinion remains split on the matter, Lynx UK Trust continues to campaign for the reintroduction of this beautiful wild cat to our landscape, and though progress is slow we may one day see the lynx fulfil once more its historic niche in the ecosystem.

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Controversy continues in the county over this issue, with the National Park Authority asking for clarification, claiming it was not consulted over the application. Opposition to the plan has been expressed by those concerned about other forms of wildlife that could become the lynx's prey, and the MP for Hexham, Guy Opperman, has also come out in support of farmers who fear for their livestock. A recent occurence in Wales involving a lynx which escaped from a zoo has done nothing to calm those fears.

Abbey Oxley

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