How to reintroduce carnivores and alienate people: A word of caution

European lynx, this one a captive animal at the New Forest Wildlife Park.

It’s become a regular occurrence: a press release from the UK Lynx Trust (UKLT) about how reintroduction of this animal is imminent in Britain, and they’ll be getting a licence through very soon. The ironic reality is that with each successive news story, their progress behind-the-scenes in Kielder becomes increasingly battered in terms of local reception, while those on the outside duly share and retweet – keeping them going, almost entirely, on PR alone.

I wrote about the impractical route they have gone through of media first community consultation later, two years ago, but things definitely haven’t got better since.

From a meeting at the village hall turning into a scene that would make a House of Commons debate look mature in comparison, to last week’s news that most of the people behind UKLT have jumped ship because of their somewhat cold reception, it’s not been a model of sound conservation management.

With their chief Paul O’Donoghue still closing his ears and saying they’ll be applying for a license in two months, this leaves a team you could probably all fit in my Peugeot 107. So what went wrong?

The importance of getting the community on board is a given, especially with something that has a good chance of eating your livestock (the fact the lynx that escaped Dartmoor Zoo killed four lambs on its brief sojourn didn’t do any favours). Additionally, while no lynx has never killed a human and the species is very shy and retiring, in our sanitised nature there are many who think this would be a risk to human safety who need careful educating.

The way UKLT approached this however was naïve. There were problems in the way they blindly stated lynx will never attack sheep because they’re woodland predators and will never cross fields, without considering the opportunistic and unpredictable behaviour of animals, a factor that means absolute certainties are very rare. There were problems in the way they stated compensation for lost stock would solve all the problems that may arise, without considering that to some this just sounds like bribery.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all, boosted by their attitude, was the way they came across as ‘us and them’.

Wildlife-human conflicts are well known, whether it’s wolves taking sheep in France or elephants raiding crop fields in India. While wildlife-human conflict would still occur (possibly often, possibly not) in a reintroduced UK lynx population, the conservation conflicts – people vs people – are just as important. Projects such as this all too often comprise of teams entirely from a ecology-based background rather than anyone who can consider the crucial social components, and UKLT was no exception. Imposing ideas on others rarely ends well, especially if the imposer comes from a lifestyle far removed from the community.

We conservationists need to think very carefully about where the opposing ‘side’ might be coming from. We need to stop assuming. UKLT will tell you the vast majority of people voted online to say they were in favour of lynx, but how many of those people live in places where it just wouldn’t happen? Others will say that people live happily with large carnivores just over the English Channel, where they are increasing in number rapidly. Not true. Ask the farmers who dumped dead sheep outside government doors in Paris in protest of predator numbers, or the families in Finland who won’t let their children play outside for fear of wolves.

No matter if it’s a rare occurrence, no matter if you’ll be compensated with enough money to buy ten new sheep, let alone one: If you’re a farmer going about your field in Kielder one morning, no study or spreadsheet will appease the anger you feel upon seeing that dead ewe on the ground. She was part of the most valuable bloodline in your flock, and no money can replace that. What you feel is a deeply primal instinct of rage, and what’s even more outrageous is the fact this would never have happened if it wasn’t for those people from far away who put the lynx here. You know you can rid yourself of these cats if you just reach for your shotgun. That’ll show the do-gooders who dumped them in your neighbourhood.

I want to see lynx back in Britain one day. But the process is two-way. Sceptics living in potential release sites should try to understand why others would want to reinstate large carnivores. And by the same token, conservationists should learn about their ‘opponent’s’ point of view. There are the ecological arguments of course; we need a top predator that can solve the problems of deer overpopulation. There is also the sheer fact that these are amazing creatures.

Large carnivores play a huge part in human culture, but what was originally fear has become admiration as we have become more aware of the importance of the natural world. I doubt anyone wants to see wolves, big cats and bears eradicated full stop because of the conflict potential. But if we carry on refusing to live with a cat that has never even killed a human in recorded history, how can we expect poverty-stricken communities in other parts of the world to live alongside lions and tigers that are a very real threat to human life, with nowhere the same amount of resources we in the Western world have at our disposal?

Should someone be prepared to bring back the lynx to Britain, or even the wolf, there is one key word that will determine its success, and if it’s not there it will fail: trust.

Any project like this should begin bottom-up. The first port of call shouldn’t be the national newspapers, but the village halls. The more people involved from within the community, the better, and it should be the community who take it forward. If the conservationists can’t joke over pints in the local pub with the farmers there’s no point.

And it would be a long process too. The UKLT’s bizarre rush to have lynx out seemingly within the year is impossibly optimistic. You can’t change the way people farm (enclosing stock at night or having watch dogs/shepherds in the fields) overnight. By attaching rigid timeframes to it, many in favour will be mislead by false promise, and others against will feel backed into a corner.

Restoring large carnivores to Britain is not impossible. But it will take a long time, and require the people to have open, realistic discussion, and it has to be community-lead. The UKLT has done more damage than it realises for creating a baseline of what ‘those bloody conservationists’ are like on an issue such as this, but I promise we’re not all bad; many have a far more realistic view of rural issues.

But perhaps it was all a blessing in disguise. At least we all now know what not to do.

16 thoughts on “How to reintroduce carnivores and alienate people: A word of caution

  1. A very sensible balanced view. Much of the conflict in the countryside over harriers, buzzards, etc etc is just down to a lack of trust and vilification of each side by the other. Pints in pubs is probably the answer!

  2. Interesting view, but those who are against it always have been, always will be, and vehemently refuse to be convinced otherwise. Look at the absolute denial from the shooting industry over the scale of raptor persecution. RSPB and others have tries to work with them, but they continue the persecution regardless. Sometimes you just have to go ahead and see what happens.

  3. As someone who has had an involvement with this as a member of the Project Stakeholder Forum, I can tell you that you are misrepresenting the good work that was done for free by a number of organisations, such as legal issues, site analysis, cost benefit, veterinary and welfare, with ecological impact that was to come, but especially in developing a local consultation process based on Q Methodology, and which after the first meeting in Kielder was taken forward by those organisations in the knowledge that it was an essential part of the development needed for the licence application. These organisations had no control on the publicity seeking. Their reports on the consultation process will show that further consultation is needed. Other reports like ecological impact will not now be done, and it is hard to see how LUKT now can do them. It was also these organisations that saw the need for the governance of the project to be improved by seeking charitable status.

    It would seem that the sole shareholder of LUKT was able to rebuff these, and instead determine to proceed with an underdeveloped and thus premature application that has no support from those organisations,nor has the Project Stakeholder Forum been informed of the recent events, or of the intentions of LUKT. You have to ask why so many journalists just swallowed what LUKT put out without doing any fact checking.

    I am led to believe that those organisations, while accepting that this is a setback, are determined to safeguard the progress that was made at Kielder by setting up a new charity. Perhaps, if your interest is in supporting the return of lynx, then maybe you should consider getting involved.

    • Hi Mark, thank you for your comment, and I apologise if I have misrepresented some of the events that have unfolded. The response among many of the key stakeholders who live in the proposed has been very poor as you well know, and it was this reaction that drove the focus of the piece. May I ask who some of the other organisations were earlier in the process?

      I look forward to seeing how and if the break-off group progresses, though I do wonder if a significant amount of damage has already been done within Kielder by the ‘lone-wolf’ driving of the UKLT.

  4. Peter. An unfashionably finely crafted and nuanced piece – well done. Independently faciIitated meetings in neutral spaces are increasingly vital for consultation/meetings with stakeholders or for internal members with differing views for many land use related subjects. Especially at the moment.
    I work/interact with rewilders, farmers, birders and shooting interests on separate matters – all parties are conservationists with plenty of common ground albeit with different human interests in the outcomes of their respective objectives.
    We must, as you say clearly, hear them without prejudice.

    • Thank you Rob. As rewilding/reintroductions/restoration ecology becomes more commonplace alongside our growing understanding of conservation conflicts, I have hope that neutral, sociological-based parties will become a more established part of these kind of projects.

  5. Thank you for this piece Pete. Balance, nuance and acceptance of subtle (and not so subtle) disagreement is vital if this (and any) debate is to move forward. There is a lot to be said for bottom up approaches to projects such as this, and it seems from what you have written and presented (I have no first hand experience when it comes to the lynx reintroduction game), that the UK Lynx Trust have been far from the mark when it comes to good community engagement.

  6. My family is lucky enough to live in a part of Switzerland where lynx live too. It’s a tiny rural village in the Swiss Jura about 40km south of Basel. My husband is a fanatical amateur wildlife photographer (professionally he’s a veterinary surgeon). About 5 years ago watching a wildlife documentary about photo traps he purchased one and put it in a likely spot in the woods. After a year or so of foxes, badgers, wild boar, chamois, roe, stone martins and other small mamals, and the purchase of numerous further trail cameras, he hit the jackpot. A very hot summer and a site near a water hole filmed a mother lynx with 2 cubs, for about 48h. The KORA organisation at Bern University keeps records of lynx sightings (which can be identified by their unique pattern of spots on the side). They were able to identify the female B167 and we helped to track her progress from Canton Bern, through Soloturn, into our Canton Basellandschaft and further into Canton Aargau. Lynx being the size of a largish dog, are certainly no danger to humans. You will never see them, if they see you first. Being forest dwelling they would certainly prefer not to be out in the open. Dogs are a bigger danger to sheep, so look after them properly and fence in the dim sheep, which damage the fragile vegetation in any case. Deer numbers will be controlled, use photo trap footage to track the lynx and help wildlife tourism to grow in wild places.
    The farmers would be wise to understand that the UK taxpayers will soon be solely responsible for paying their subsidies If it’s not economic to farm certain areas, returning them to the wildlife would be many people’s preferred option.

    • Thank you for your comment, Janet. You’re very lucky in my opinion to live within lynx territory – to get mother and cubs on a camera trap, wow! I can only dream. Agreed on your points, and unleashed dogs are certainly a big problem in the UK too. The difference in Britain is that with no cultural memory of wild large carnivores, any stock killing from reintroduced animals will be harder to reconcile given it was someone’s responsibility for the animal being there. Ecologically lynx could live across much of Britain fine, but it’s this social aspect that would require a lot of work.

      • Interestingly, there are many sheep on the hills in our village. The farmers often just let the lambs run around in the fields next to where the lynx are living in the adjacent forest. We have heard no reports of lambs and certainly not sheep being attacked or killed. Lynx are smaller than the sheep and are likely confused and intimidated by a whole flock of them. The lynx would rather hunt roe deer.
        Even in the whole of Switzerland reports of sheep being attacked are vanishingly rare and often occur after the dominant animal has been killed, destabilising the local resident population. The less interference the better seems to work best once a stable population is present. This is also true for other solitary cats such as tigers. Lynx were reintroduced into Switzerland in the 1970’s, so it’s a fairly recent change here too.
        My husbands latest toy is an IR camera. In late spring we are fairly sure he filmed a lynx chasing 2 roe deer across the fields on the hill opposite our house.
        If you are interested to see the video of the lynx and cubs, I can try to send you footage. Just let me know.

  7. The notion of reintroducing Lynx into Europe’s largest conifer plantation pushes the concept of rewilding (whatever that is) to breaking point, in my opinion. The grounds for reintroduction are pretty thin and Kielder represents precisely the wrong wooded environment for the reintroduction to be successful.

    • It’s no longer just conifers in Kielder, and the Swiss Jura and Alps have mainly conifers at higher altitudes. If there are prey (deer) then the lynx are fine. When did you last visit Kielder?

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