Deer are monsters ... at least to the British countryside. Yes, those innocent-looking, four-legged herbivores are actually ravaging, marauding beasts. I apologise for demonising the deer, but their overgrazing is seriously damaging the health of the UK’s woodlands, and impacting other creatures that co-exist there in the process. 

Now, an ambitious ‘rewilding’ project is underway to naturally reduce Britian's deer populations. The Lynx UK Trust has been working on a scheme to release wild lynx into several privately owned, unfenced estates in Norfolk, Cumbria and Aberdeenshire. If the scheme is given the green light, four to six Eurasian lynx fitted with GPS tracking collars will be unleashed into each of the deer-rich and densely forested sites.

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Image: Tom Bech, Flickr

The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) has been extinct in the United Kingdom for over 1,300 years, but the species still prowls across parts of the European continent itself. The cats are solitary, elusive creatures that are rarely seen by humans. So solitary, in fact, that individual territories can be as vast as 400 square kilometres. Living in dense forests, they stalk their prey – primarily deer, rodents and birds – during dusk and dawn. This crepuscular lifestyle means they're most active during twilight, which, along with their elusive nature, is what has earned their bobcat cousins (Lynx rufus) the moniker 'keeper of secrets' in North American mythology. 

Lynxes might be efficient, stealthy predators, but they present no danger to humans. In fact, you're statistically far more likely to be injured by your own pet dog than a wild lynx. Roughly the same size as a pit bull, the lynx is wary of people, and there has never been a recorded attack on humans.

“Top predators are crucial ecosystem managers, and when they disappear, their absence can have profound ecological impacts down the food chain.”

But why reintroduce these cats into the UK? "The lynx will bring the British countryside back to life,” argues Dr Paul O’Donoghue, an ecologist and scientific advisor to the Lynx UK Trust. That might be a bold claim, but there is plenty of evidence that apex predators are crucial ecosystem managers, and when they disappear, their absence can have profound ecological impacts down the food chain. Perhaps the most classic example is the case of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park, where the reintroduction of these carnivores has been credited with restoring ecological balance and biodiversity. While the story of Yellowstone's wolves has since been shown to be more complex than we thought, around the globe large carnivores do play an indispensable role in keeping ecosystems healthy.  

So while the lynx certainly is a beautiful ‘beast’, it's not being reintroduced to Britian's forests merely for its aesthetic allure or its somewhat legendary nature. There is genuine hope that the cats will help to “reinvigorate the countryside”, O’Donoghue notes. By ambushing a suitable number of roaming deer, the cats can play a part in regenerating the forests and improving the biodiversity of the countryside.

The Lynx UK Trust has set up a survey to gauge public reaction to the project, and O’Donoghue is eager to hear and consider a range of opinions. If initial responses are anything to go by – 80% of those asked about the scheme in Norfolk, in the east of England, wish for the project to go ahead without delay – the lynx may soon be prowling Britain's forests once more.

Top header image: ChaosHusky, Flickr