What’s the story?

THE possibility of reintroducing the Eurasian Lynx to Scotland is under fresh appraisal following the completion of a study into the feasibility of the species’ return.

A years’ research commissioned by the Lynx in Scotland Project recently concluded, after gathering feedback from conservationists, communities, foresters, farmers, gamekeepers and landowners on the potential reintroduction of the lynx - a medium-sized wildcat known as the third largest predator in Europe after the brown bear and the wolf, which is believed to have become extinct in Britain around 1,300 years ago.  

Despite the proposal being described by the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) as “wholly unacceptable” due to the alleged danger lynx might pose to sheep, the study found broad support amongst stakeholders for exploring the idea further, and recommends the creating of a Lynx Action Group to address any concerns.

Peter Cairns, executive director of the charity Scotland: The Big Picture, commented: “When it comes to the return of the lynx, we’re in the realm of not yet – but not never.”

Why reintroduce species?

Reintroducing species which have undergone local extinction helps prevent those species from becoming extinct entirely, which as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has noted, occurs today between 1,000 and 10,000 times more rapidly than under natural conditions due to human factors such as deforestation, pollution and climate change.

Additionally, as the Scottish Wildlife Trust has argued, when a species becomes extinct in a distinct geographic area, it can alter, damage or even destroy the local ecosystem, particularly when they are what is called a ‘keystone species’.

Keystone species may be anything from a fungi to a predator, but whatever their nature, the role they play in their ecosystem cannot be easily replaced, and their absence can reverberate in dramatic and unforeseen ways.

The case for species reintroduction is therefore both moral and ecological, and would hopefully make Scotland’s ecosystems richer and stronger.

Have any species been reintroduced already?

Beavers are a classic example of a keystone species, given their role as ‘ecosystem engineers’. The building of natural dams by beavers creates new wetland habitats, which can bring benefits to other species including fish, birds, otters, shrews and voles, as well as thinning out older trees to allow new ones to grow, contributing to both their ecosystem’s health and biodiversity.

In 2009, the Scottish Beaver Trial embarked upon a five-year initiative to reintroduce beavers to Scotland after 400 years. The trial was a success, and in 2021, the number of Scottish beavers – now a protected species - was found to have doubled over the preceding three years, with NatureScot estimating a beaver population of roughly 1000 spread throughout over 250 territories.  

Elsewhere, white-tailed eagles – extinct in Scotland since 1917 due to persecution – have been slowly reintroduced between 1975 and 2012. The reintroduction has been considered a success, and it is estimated that the presence of these birds brings an estimated £5 million in tourism revenues to Mull alone.

Wild boar, on the other hand, have returned largely by accident. After becoming extinct in Britain roughly 400 years ago, they were reintroduced by farmers in the 1990s. Many of them promptly escaped and established themselves in forests and rural areas, including in Dumfries & Galloway and the Highlands. Ironically, Scottish farmers are now among the loudest voices calling for greater action to cull or control Scotland’s boar population.

What other species might be reintroduced?

Advocates of rewilding have long argued for greater ambition in reintroducing species which once roamed Scotland, some which include elk, brown bears and wolves. However, as with the lynx, the idea of these animals returning has proven controversial.

In particular, the idea of reintroducing wolves after absence of three centuries has been discussed on and off since the 1960s, but in recent years has simultaneously gained support from rewilding activists and drawn condemnation from farmers and landowners.

Advocates argue wolves could help control deer numbers in the Highlands, in much the same way that the reintroduction of wolves reduced the population of wild elk in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, which was threatened by the elks’ overgrazing.

At present, however, the Scottish Government has said: “We have no plans to reintroduce lynx, wolves, bears or any other large carnivore species into Scotland.”