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The Return of Large Predators?

Part of the national push to rewild Britain has been focused on the reintroduction of species that have been lost from our countryside, in part or entirely, such as the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber), Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), and the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus). These reintroductions have met with some success, leading to the re-establishment of species that can help restore ecosystems.

These reintroductions, however, are controversial, due to the potential negative impact on landowners and farmers, through crop and livestock loss and damage to land and fences. This negative impact is one of the key issues surrounding the reintroduction of megafauna, including large predators, to Britain, combined with fears of threats to public safety. Many of the large mammals that once roamed Great Britain have long since been hunted to extinction, such as the Eurasian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos arctos), Elk (Alces alces), and Wolverine (Gulo gulo). More recently, however, Britain saw the loss of the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx), around 1,500 years ago, and the grey wolf (Canis lupus), 250 years ago.

Why the push for reintroduction?

Lynx and wolves are apex predators and, therefore, influence the entire ecosystem they are a part of. Removing these species can cause a trophic cascade, leading to an imbalance throughout the food chain. Aside from tourism, one of the main motivations for the reintroduction of these apex predators, particularly in Scotland, is that they can aid in the control of deer populations. Scotland has been actively seeking to create large areas of new woodland, planting around 10,860 hectares during 2019/20, with plans to plant a further 25 million trees by 2021/22. Large, undisturbed deer populations can damage newly planted, young trees, as well as other vegetation, reducing their ability to grow. Yearly, more than 100,000 deer are culled in an attempt to control current populations. Lynx, wolves, and even brown bears would be a more natural solution, helping to keep populations healthy and increase the likelihood of deer groups moving throughout the habitat, allowing areas of vegetation to recover, as seen in Yellowstone National Park (US).

These predators would further aid in the conservation of many other British species, as the resultant vegetation growth would increase habitat connectivity. Lynx can aid in the control of red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and feral cat (Felis catus) populations, reducing pressures on species such as Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris) and ground-nesting birds, such as curlews (Numenius arquata) and lapwings (Vanellus vanellus). Carcases from wolf and lynx kills would also provide food for many scavengers.

The risks

One of the main concerns currently restricting any reintroduction plans for apex predators is the risk to livestock. Predation on sheep is documented in areas that support lynx populations in Europe, although the accuracy of reported numbers is not always verifiable. Wolves are frequently demonised and blamed for livestock loss, particularly in the US, although it is not always possible to reliably prove where the blame lies. Certain control methods such as guard dogs and open pasture grazing as opposed to woodland grazing have been shown to reduce losses. This, combined with government funding compensation for any livestock losses, would reduce any negative impact on farmers.

A further concern is a potential threat to humans. While lynx pose little to no threat, wolves could. Suggestions of protective fencing around wolf habitats are considered by some to infringe on the public’s right of access in Scotland, but this would be less of an issue in England and Wales due to differing laws, as long as the habitats did not include certain areas such as coastal land where the public have the right to walk. It is also argued that only introducing wolves to fenced areas would disregard the purpose of re-wilding.

So should we?

The benefits of reintroducing apex predators are numerous and could be a necessary stepping-stone to further reintroductions and to truly rewild Britain. However, it is not without its risks and requires a positive public attitude to be fully successful. Restoring the functionality and sustainability of our ecosystems is an important step in conservation and our fight against climate change. The reintroduction of apex predators has been successful in multiple other European countries, leading many to believe that the same can be achieved in Britain too.

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