Blog: Assessing lynx and wildcat reintroduction to the UK

Published: 17 Aug 2020

Author: Katherine Walsh
Blog: Assessing lynx and wildcat reintroduction to the UK

There is widespread and growing interest in the potential of reintroducing top predators to the UK in order to restore ecosystems. However, there are currently no species-specific recommendations on how to do this in a way that would avoid the socio-economic downsides often associated with the return of previously persecuted carnivores.

"There are a number of hurdles which would have to be overcome, if either the lynx or the wildcat were to be reintroduced into the UK." - Katherine Walsh, Fellow

In recent years, the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and the European wildcat (Felis silvestris) have become the focus of attention for reintroduction in the UK. It is thought that the lynx may have been present in the UK in the Roman period and perhaps into the Medieval period (the exact date of extinction remains unclear), while the wildcat is now considered functionally extinct in the wild in the UK.

Both species have suffered from extensive human persecution, habitat destruction, habitat loss and fragmentation and loss of prey across their former range. This has led to widespread extinction, fragmentation and restricted populations of both species.

In recent years, there has been considerable effort to restore populations of both species across central and western Europe. Additionally, remnant indigenous populations have undergone a natural recovery, due to a cessation or restriction of killing and a recovery in the quality and extent of habitat available. Where this has not been possible, reintroduction schemes have taken place in some areas to try to restore and reconnect populations.

As part of my Churchill Fellowship, I travelled to Germany and Switzerland to research my project, ‘Assessing the suitability of lynx and wildcat reintroduction to the UK’. I chose these countries because both have a history of lynx or wildcat reintroduction schemes and research initiatives, stretching back over 40 years.

Katherine visited the Rhineland Palatinate Forest in Germany which is a Lynx reintroduction site 

I gathered and reviewed best practice knowledge from these countries to produce my Report. This provides a starting point for further discussion with regulators, non-government organisations, expert groups and other stakeholders, on the potential for reintroduction schemes for both species. Following on from this, I aim to produce a set of practical guidelines, providing a clear set of science-led principles defining the anthropogenic and ecological circumstances under which it may be appropriate to reintroduce these species. The aim is that only viable, well designed projects are submitted in future for consideration, leading to improved public support and successful schemes that provide tangible conservation benefits.

There are a number of hurdles which would have to be overcome, if either the lynx or the wildcat were to be reintroduced into the UK. The key hurdles for each species are:

  1. The lynx is a solitary top predator which requires large areas of contiguous woodland away from infrastructure and urban development. The species can and has been the source of human carnivore conflict amongst the farming and hunting community. As the UK is an island and cannot naturally recruit dispersing animals from other countries, it is likely that some form of assisted colonisation would be required for a number of years to maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding in the initially small and closed reintroduced population.
  2. The wildcat is known to hybridise and produce fertile offspring with domestic cats. Hybridisation is considered to be a threat where pet and feral domestic cat population densities are high and where suitable habitat is scarce. Small reintroduced populations of wildcats, situated in sub-optimal habitat, would be particularly vulnerable once they start to expand and move into areas near to human settlements (i.e.close to feral and domestic cat populations).

Unfortunately, many of my initial plans have had to be put on hold due to the Covid-19. A number of conferences I was due to talk at were inevitably cancelled. However, I will be working on producing scientific papers from my initial report and will be giving talks on my initial findings once conferences are rearranged.

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