The beautiful European Lynx (Lynx lynx) is not only one of Europe’s largest predators, but one of its most elusive. Even people who live right out in the middle of remote lynx country, such as Poland’s Bialowieza Forest or the Carpathian Mountains, can go years between seeing one. This was still the case when it was widespread across the continent, including the British Isles; whilst bears and wolves were ubiquitous enough to demand bounties for their capture and places within folklore and fairy tales, the lynx slipped by unseen. (Among the few folk tales surrounding lynx that exist, the most bizarre is that if it urinates into a hole it will solidify into a ruby!)
This secretive nature is a key to the lynx’s success as a predator, working by stealth and ambush rather than sprinting down its prey when it can be avoided. Adaptations to this technique are apparent across its physiology; Muscular legs to generate the energy for that killer pounce, large, soft paws that muffle the sound of it’s movements, and when you don’t need a long tail for balance in sprinting a short, stubby one is present so as not to betray its presence. Even the ear tufts, which were often thought to have little use, have been found by researchers to be a potential advantage in detecting low frequency sounds for it’s radar-like ears.
As a predator of anything from rabbits and ground birds to roe deer, lynx play a crucial role in their ecosystems as top predators; yet sadly, their demise from much of their former range, largely as a result of suitable forest habitat, has lead their former habitats to be a lot less biodiverse as a result. This is due to the de-establisment of a trophic cascade; these are the ways in which top predators; such as the lynx and wolf, maintain the health of their ecosystems by controlling not only the populations, but the feeding patterns, of their prey. With predator pressure a deer will only eat a few leaves of a plant and quickly move on, rather than spending time devouring it entirely or overgrazing a small area. This increases plant diversity, increases invertebrate numbers, thus increasing woodland birds, and so on.
And Britain’s woodlands are in severe need of these, with too many deer that have lost fear of predation, as well as the rapid spread of introduced muntjac deer. With issues over livestock security making it less likely for the wolf to make a comeback in the UK, the elusive lynx is a far better candidate. Able to live alongside without us even knowing, less inclined to kill livestock, with roe and muntjac deer in particular as perfect-size prey and added economic incentive from ecotourism, I personally feel the lynx is an ideal candidate for reintroduction. It isn’t just a moral need to bring this incredible animal back to our shores, but an urgent one for the sake of our wildlife.
(Photos taken at Whipsnade Zoo & the New Forest Wildlife Park)