Dr David Hetherington: Reintroducing the Lynx to Britain

Feb 13 2024


David meets David to discuss a cat so enigmatic that they named it thrice; the Eurasian Lynx, aka the Lynx lynx lynx! (Although, strictly speaking, it is trice named because it is the type-form subspecies of its own species... but that's far less entertaining, albeit cool.)


David Oakes

David Oakes

Host

Dr David Hetherington

Guest


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About this episode:

Dr David Hetherington is an expert on the Eurasian Lynx and the beneficial links Lynx (Lynx lynx lynx) can manifest within our complicated British ecosystems. What he doesn’t know about the Lynx’s rich history across Europe is not worth knowing: Hear why Hildegard von Bingen thought drinking Lynx urine was highly beneficial; when exactly(ish) Lynx were wiped from British shores leaving only one town name with any form of association to a once indigenous species, and; how the Nazis could be considered the twentieth century’s first big-mammal “re-wilders”. But, most importantly, David answers the big question: does Britain have enough well connected forest habitat to safely support a large mobile forest-dependent species? Specialising in species reintroduction programmes, David managed the Cairngorms Wildcat Project and actively encouraged a positive relationship with gamekeepers to help all parties work for nature conservation without getting “sucked into the vortex of raptor politics”. He also sits on the board of Trees for Life – an award-winning charity that works to enhance the native woodland ecology of the Scottish Highlands. To that end, expect wildcats, red squirrels, pine martens, capercaillies, as well as the animal so cool they named it thrice, Lynx lynx lynx, in this immersive and informative wildlife deep dive.


David's thoughts:

We have a deer problem.

If you talk to a farmer, a forester, a conservationist, a re-wilder, you name it, you’ll discover that they’re all united under one common concern – we have too many deer in this country, and they’re causing havoc to our crops/fencing/saplings/forests/etc… [delete as you see fit].

We cull our deer in Britain. Naturalists and Conservationists hire expert marksmen to go out with guns at anti-social hours to reduce the numbers of animals in Forestry Commission land, in National Parks, upon Sites of Special Scientific Interest…

We close off inner city parks like Bushy Park and Richmond Park to make them more tourist friendly (“Park Life” by John Bartram gives an impeccable account of the hows and whys to doing this in Greater London – well worth a read.)

In short, wherever these marksmen go, it is done to give young plants and their habitats a chance to escape being munched by these voracious feeders and rapid breeders.

It’s an expensive exercise; and one that doesn’t truly align terribly comfortably with those who value animals rights alongside those of conservation and natural biodiversity.

The bloom in the deer population is made worse by many of these problem deer species being not even native to Britain. In this episode, David Hetherington mentions the blight Britain has with Muntjac – cute, but a real nuisance.

A side note: The Reeve’s Muntjac were brought to Britain as an ornamental quirk for rich people’s estates – most notably the Woburn Abbey estate from which they escaped in 1925 and have been causing havoc ever since. Woburn Abbey also homed a number of the Chinese Père David’s deer, also mentioned in this podcast. This private collection played a significant role in a successful reintroduction effort back in China after the resident native population was hunted near to extinction in the 19th century. The take away: enthusiastic private deer-enthusiasts aren’t all bad all of the time! These particular Woburnian ungulates were the property of Herbrand Arthur Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford and the President of the Zoological Society of London from 1899 to 1936. He did great work to preserve a number of endangered species. But, he probably enjoyed shooting a few of them too… I mean, he hated paying taxes and his own grandson describes him as: “A selfish, forbidding man.. he lived a cold, aloof existence, isolated from the outside world by a mass of servants, sycophants and an eleven-mile wall…” So I can’t imagine he was entirely benevolent in his ambitions!

As I was saying – deer-proof fencing and tree-guards can protect individual trees and whole forests and protected sites – but they too are expensive and require much maintenance.

Now, wouldn’t it be great if we had an apex predator that could help bring balance back in a natural manner…

There’s a song by Chris Wood called “The Wolfless Years”. It’s a favourite of mine:

“As they lived through the wolfless years
The deer forgot how to live like deer
They grazed the hillsides with no fear
And they played down by the fountains
But when at last the wolf returned
Overnight all the dear relearned
To the forest they returned
And the wild flowers once more filled the mountains.”

Chris uses this a metaphor, but the reality he speaks of is a well noted phenomenon. A well balanced habitat with both predator and prey allowing other species to “blossom”, rivers to find their natural paths, and whole ecosystems to become enriched in a way that predates human intervention.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see. or at least to know, that the Lynx was back in our forests rebalancing the mistakes of previous generations.

All Lynx photography on this page and used to promote this episode of the podcast is courtesy of Scotland: The Big Picture. Thank you.

LINKS:

Cairngorms National Park Authority – https://cairngorms.co.uk/
Saving Wildcats – https://savingwildcats.org.uk/
Trees for Life – https://treesforlife.org.uk/

Buy David’s book, “The Lynx and Us”

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