Recent conservation movements have called for a reintroduction of top predators such as wolves, lynx and even bears to British soil, but should we return these animals to the British countryside?

1500 years ago wolves, bears and lynx roamed throughout the British Isles, through a combination of hunting and habitat loss each of these carnivores has faced extinction in the UK. After the death of the last wolf in the 1600s the UK has been free of large terrestrial predators, but over the last few decades a new idea in conservation biology has emerged aiming to restore countryside to its former, wilder state.

Already, charities and trusts such as Rewilding Britain, the John Muir Trust and Trees for Life have embarked on various projects to restore the natural ecosystems of the Scottish Highlands, from replanting the ancient Caledonian forest to reintroducing sea eagles, wild bores and beavers. Many of these schemes have been met with support from the science community and the general public alike, offering a new, exciting alternative to the ‘preservation jar’ approach to conservation that has bee criticised in UK conservation. This approach focuses on preserving certain target species, but restrictive management prevents natural changes, and often fails to replicate the dynamic nature of the natural world.

Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) been proposed from reintroduction in Scotland

Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) been proposed from reintroduction in Scotland

The re-establishment of top predators in could bring tremendous benefits in terms of managing the massive over grazing issue caused by large, unchecked deer populations in Scotland. As deer currently have no natural predators, herds can destroy both natural vegetation and agricultural crops, and require regular culling by land managers. The reintroduction of wolves or lynx could offer a natural alternative to this, a technique which has been successful in Yellowstone National Park in the USA and in locations in Southern Europe. However, top carnivores have been absent in the UK for far longer than in Yellowstone, and it is debated whether the environment has changed too much to support these animals.

The lynx (Lynx lynx) is a solitary hunter

The lynx (Lynx lynx) is a solitary hunter

Pack living animals e.g. wolves, need large areas of suitable habitat with minimal human interference to survive and breed, it is unlikely that appropriate areas exist in Britain at the moment, in Scotland there are efforts to create habitat corridors for large mammals so this may change.

The reintroduction of the lynx brings more promise, this solitary species can thrive in a smaller area and lynx are less likely to attack wandering sheep and cattle. This makes them a more suitable candidate for large-scale reintroduction in the near future than wolves and bears.

Large predator reintroductions also often face opposition from the media and public groups. Wolves especially, are demonised by popular culture as vicious and dangerous hunters. Farmers may worry for the safety of their livestock and tourist groups may debate the risks presented to hikers and walkers. As the UK has such a dense population this leaves few areas at a suitable distance from human settlements meaning human-wildlife conflict is going to be a problem with reintroductions even in the most remote parts of the UK.

Other groups believe that the profits and employment possibilities gained from increased wildlife tourism would far outweigh the losses from farming. The profits made from sea eagle tourism in Mull now exceed £5 million per year since their restoration in 1975.

 

The wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) and the capercallie (Tetrao urogallus)- two endangered species in the Highlandswildcat

The capercallie (Tetrao urogallus) and the wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) – two endangered species in the Highlands

 

 

In spite of this, the introduction of new top predators may actually have negative impacts on resident endangered wildlife in Britain. The Scottish wildcat, for example is already heavily threatened by habitat loss and outbreeding with feral cats and larger reintroduced predators like lynx might outcompete the wildcat for prey and cause further population declines. The capercaillie, one of Britain’s largest birds and an endangered species may also be hunted by introduced predators putting it at greater risk. There is the argument of focusing the effort into conserving Britain’s remaining ancient species rather than bringing back what is already lost.

So should top carnivores be returned to Britain?

Reintroduction of any species, especially top predators, is complicated and needs to take into account many issues such as finding suitable habitats, and finding appropriate animals. In tightly packed Britain we have the added issue of a dense population and few real ‘wilderness’ areas, however, previous successes in the UK and further afield have shown us that reintroduction is a definite possibility.