Will lynx restore the natural order?
AS DEBATE rages over the possible reintroduction of Lynx into Kielder Forest, the two people running the consultation process say, with passion and sincerity, ‘the facts speak for themselves’.
Freelance ecologist Deborah Brady and Ian Convery, Professor of Environment and Society at Cumbria University, have been hired by Lynx UK Trust to carry out the consultations that are a preamble to it applying for a licence from Natural England to release and monitor six imported lynx during a five year trial.
Deborah, who lives in Otterburn, nails her colours firmly to the mast: “The primary reason for doing it is the most important.
“A couple of key reports have come out recently that highlight the state of biodiversity, both here and internationally.
“One of them, the Living Planet report, indicates that at the current rate of decline two-thirds of our species will have been lost by 2020 – and that’s since 1970, which is pretty much over the course of my lifetime.
“If you stop and think about that and what that means to you and me –we grew up with images of lions and tigers and other big game animals – and what is actually going to be left to our children and grandchildren, that is horrendous!”
The other report confirms that is no exaggeration. The State of Nature, the latest triennial assessment of the health of the international environment, places the UK near the bottom of the ladder: 189th out of the world’s 218 countries.
In short, species are dying out at an ever faster rate in an ecosystem that is bent out of shape and malfunctioning badly.
At the end of the last ice age, there was a land bridge that linked us to Europe which plants and animals migrated across as a package, Deborah says. But now an essential piece of the jigsaw is missing - the apex predator, or predators, that ensure a natural balance prevails.
Ian examines the subject of trophic cascade, in which ‘trophic’ means food and the two words together ‘food management’. The question is: if you change the ecosystem, what effect will it have on our food chain?
“It’s quite well documented that when you have all the pieces of the jigsaw in place for both land and marine systems then you have a better, more robust ecosystem in general,” he said.
“But if you don’t have that apex predator there, you get too much in the middle. Imagine the apex at the top of a pyramid and then remove it, and what you get is a middle layer expanding – in the way the number of deer has in the UK.”
The knock-on effect, in this case, was that there were now too many herbivores, having a negative impact on biodiversity, agriculture and the food chain. The current bulging population of deer was stripping trees with a vengeance and distorting forest ecosystems as a result.
“Bring back an apex predator capable of restoring order and you allow woodland to regenerate naturally -–you allow other species to come back,” said Ian. “Small mammals and birds, such as songbirds, will return to their natural levels.”
Lynx UK Trust has been the subject of fierce criticism over both the proposed lynx release and the way it has carried out the consultation. Emotions have run high in public meetings held in Kielder, Tarset, Falstone, Newcastleton and Langholm, and the figures quoted about how many people are and aren’t in favour of the plan have been picked apart.
For their part, Deborah and Ian say it is important they get the consultation process right and that they aren’t hurried into taking shortcuts. “We want to ensure everyone who has an opinion is heard,” said Deborah. “I would repeat that ‘if you haven’t filled in a questionnaire and you are worried your views haven’t been reflected, then my offer is still firmly on the table that I will come out and make sure they are’.”
They said they were working methodically through the communities in the oval-shaped ‘primary zone’, which would be the apex predator’s heartland should Lynx UK get the go-ahead, marked on their OS map.
They were using the tried and tested Q Methods approach employed by respected researchers, including universities, to produce objective, transparent results that would stand up to analysis.
It was a time-consuming affair, though. They had got 100 questionnaires filled in so far, but each house call could entail anything from 10 minutes on the doorstep to an hour-and-a-half chat over a cup of tea.
The questions were deliberately designed to elicit neither a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’, rather a multi-textured reflection of broad-ranging opinions.
It was too early in proceedings to expect people to give decisive answers on such a complex topic, said Ian, not least because most people knew absolutely nothing about lynx.
“The questionnaire is open-ended, so people can express their views without being coloured or directed by us in any way.
“It is designed to give us a sense of not only what they are concerned about, but also what benefits they might see.
“This stage is about giving us the opportunity to reflect on their answers and perhaps to come back with solutions and to have further dialogue together.”
Ian himself grew up on a hill farm just off the Military Road, near Haltwhistle, so he well understood the concerns of farmers.
But he felt the proposal to release lynx into the wild was based on good science and that, by working closely with farmers and the wider rural community, the project could be managed so that nobody paid an unacceptable price.
Several focus groups, three specifically addressing the interests of farmers, local businesses and forestry/ecology, and another couple for residents in general, were currently being set up for the next round of the consultation.
“This is not about people’s views not being important or that they are going to be rode roughshod over,” he said, “but at the end of the day, maybe the best thing is to have that trial.
“That would allow a better, more informed decision to be made about whether they want to have those animals in our landscape on a permanent basis.”