One more step towards the trial release of lynx


The coastal cliff wildflowers were in full bloom a few weeks ago in Pembrokeshire: scurvy grass, thrift, sea campion, bladder campion, prostrate broom, ox-eye daisy, kidney vetch, cowslips, spring squill, but also bird’s foot trefoil, early purple orchid, violets, and including the odd patch of bluebells out in the open. The coastal cliffslope woodland at Goultrop Roads that we hazardously walk was rammed with mosses, ferns and lichens as well as woodland flowers: wood anemone, wood sorrel, moschatel, wood spurge, woodruff, woodrush, campion, and bluebells (1). It was typical Welsh weather, dodging showers, but we made good use of the low spring tides to find places out on the edge to peer into the near subtidal, infra-littoral fringe where the heads of the kelps bob out of the water. There is not so much infra-littoral fringe habitat accessible there compared to the Northumberland or N. Yorkshire coasts, but we identified a number of seaweeds new to us, including red flags/false dulse (Dilsea carnosa (2)) dulse (Palmaria palmata (3)) and sugar kelp (Saccharina latissimi (4)) as well as, in the midtidal areas, laver (Porphyra umbilicalis (5)) and the non-native wireweed (Sargassum muticum (6)). We found four types of sea anemone: beadlet, strawberry, snakelock and elegant, plus a spiny crab and many starfish. There were lots of sponges: orange, green, yellow, and one that was almost red. A dogfish (small-spotted catshark ~60cm) was stranded in the rock pools at the S end of Newgale Sands. Its characteristic brown mottling was set against a rough skin with a pinkish hue rather than the yellow-grey shown in books. Then one sunny day with a rising tide we entered the realms of science fiction out on the very red rocks of St Brides Haven. We saw filmy, almost see-through creatures about 7 x 3cm with flashing motile cilia, and which contorted through contracting and expanding as they surfed undercurrents in the 30cm of sea over a rock ledge. The books say these were likely carnivorous comb jellies, beroid Ctenophores (7) that lack the tentacles of sea gooseberries (8) because instead they have a gigantic mouth that enables them to engulf other comb jellies (see the video in (9)). Astonishing! They are listed as a pelagic species (7) a species of much deeper water, and so we must have been very lucky to have seen them so close in shore.

It was not all delight. The Pembrokeshire coastal slope grazing project has been a nightmare that I have had to avoid over the last decade, with its self-serving notices of the value to diversity of this grazing (10). Knowing where the areas of grazing were, I could mostly avoid them. However, a fenced area with three small ponies has appeared along the coastal cliff path on the coastal slope headlands at Tower Point and The Nab Head, just south from St Brides Haven. It was instigated by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, after the inevitable persecution of gorse, according to a sign appended to the gated fence across the coast path. The Park Authority is a facilitator in this with its Grazing Network – “Ponies are great at coastal grazing and we think they quite enjoy it!”(11). There has been for some time an area of severe erosion and complete loss of the coastal turf on The Nab Head that is cautionary evidence of the effect of exposure to winter rains and wind for thin soils over rock. It is patently obvious that the mechanical damage that these ponies have achieved in a very short time, including adding to the existing area of the natural erosion as well as creating new areas of disrupted turf and bare soil, combined with the force of winter exposure, is going to lead to even greater areas of soil loss and bare rock, and making a nonsense of the claim on that posted sign that this grazing is going to “increase plant and animal diversity”

Sixty years ago on Scar Close – then and now

That livestock grazing is anathema to wild nature was amply demonstrated yet again with a visit to Scar Close last week, this time with Colin Newlands, the manager of the National Nature Reserve in which this area of limestone pavement sits (12). Colin was keen to show us a black and white photograph that he had discovered from the mid-1950s that gave a view SE across the pavement, with Ingleborough Hill towering in the background and one of the glacial erratic boulders sitting on top of the pavement in the foreground. He took us to this boulder so that we could compare the old photograph with today’s view, of a very few scattered trees and the odd shrub and grassy area 60 years ago, to the much larger areas of grass, and the mass of shrubbery and trees. As I have explained before, it was the break from grazing in 1974 that has led to this transformation on Scar Close, with the increasing recruitment of ash trees driving the formation of soil and the greater floristic diversity compared to the nearby grazed pavement of Southerscales (13) a similar view across which today is captured by that old photograph. I added four species to my list of plants at Scar Close with this trip, taking it to nearly 80, but it is dwarfed by the rolling list that Colin keeps that is over 200. I was however able to add one for updating Colin’s list, having successfully rediscovered the patch of Herb Paris that I first found there last year, and which Colin had yet to find. It is still a puzzle to me how it got to Scar Close, the nearest I have found it before is in the ancient woodland of Ling Gill, some 5km away, but maybe I have overlooked it in the nearer ancient woodland of Colt Park Wood (12).

Sometimes considered an indicator plant for ancient woodland, this is the second time I have found Herb Paris turn up in secondary woodland, albeit that its habitat selection seems similar in all of these places, including in the first area of secondary wood on limestone pavement that I found it in. That was above Bastow and Grass Woods, two other ancient woodlands on limestone pavement where there is a presence of the plant - I checked on them there a few days ago. Herb Paris is an astonishing perennial of native woodland, a rhizomatous geophyte that can be seen to spread vegetatively along the line of the soil-filled grikes, the crevice channels in limestone pavement (14). The role of birds in transferring the seeds in its toxic black berry fruiting body is unlikely, and it may be that bank voles and wood mice are the main dispersers after consuming the seeds, or in physically relocating the fruiting body (14). As is noted though, Herb Paris clearly has to cross inhospitable terrain by whatever means to reach suitable locations, suggesting that it may have dispersal mechanisms that are currently unknown (15). This could be said for many of the species that have puzzlingly found their way on to Scar Close, and there is no reason to believe that there may be even more to come. Perhaps I will find again what I took to be a young helleborine orchid, soon to flower, and which I thought may have been dark-red helleborine (Epipactus atrorubens) a limestone pavement specialist, but maybe it was instead the more common broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) either of which are yet to be found on Colin’s list.

Locally-led model of environmental management

The floristic marvel that I see on the coastal cliffs of Pembrokeshire owes nothing to their presence in a national park. It is due to the forces of nature, the cliff faces and the cliff slope woodland being inaccessible to what could be the destroying force of the livestock grazing facilitated by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority Grazing Network. The wonder of the intertidal marine nature of the Pembrokeshire coast is also outside of the purview of the national park. The National Nature Reserve in which Scar Close sits is in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but in the same way the floristic diversity of Scar Close owes nothing to its presence in the national park, the decision not to graze the pavement having been taken by the Nature Conservancy Council (the forerunner to English Nature/Natural England) when the land was first leased in 1974. It is thus with some bemusement that I read a policy paper from March that sets out how Government intends to protect, promote and enhance national parks in England from now until 2020 (16).The big idea of this eight-point plan is that national parks will be part of a government campaign to connect young people with nature, but you just know that it will also be about inuring them to the baser realities of the connections between farming and its impact on the environment. As to that environment, there is the astonishing statement that the national parks are part of the Governments wider ambition for Britain to have “the best natural environment anywhere in the world, to be delivered through the government’s 25-Year Environment Plan” the latter it says will be published later this year. The mechanism it would seem is to be a “locally-led model of environmental management”, an “integrated management of the natural environment”. In short-hand, national parks are to be farmed not only for food and timber production, but also for important environmental services”. Good luck with the latter, as every evidence so far indicates that a “locally-led model” by farmers will resist any allowance for environmental services, such as flood prevention, even if the usual incentivisation with subsidy is dangled in front of them (17).

All this is a far cry from the aspirations for the wild nature of national parks articulated back in 1991 when a report of a National Parks Review Panel recognised the lack of viability of hill farming, and the need to “discourage the side-effects that have so damaged the environmental quality of the national parks in recent years” (18). The Panel considered a number of policy responses, one of which was for the “deliberate but voluntary withdrawal of farming operations” from some defined areas, so “permitting nature to take its course” (18):
“Not every hectare of our national parks has to be farmed; a conscious decision that, for conservation reasons, certain areas should be allowed to develop a natural succession of vegetation, may well be appropriate in parts of Upland Britain”

There is a forward reference to this option in an earlier section of the report that is about Nature Conservation in the national parks. The Panel had identified that "preserving and enhancing the natural beauty" as the sole first purpose in the legislation for national parks as originally enacted was too limiting (19) and that instead they should embrace more than just scenery, giving nature conservation higher priority. The Panel wanted the first purpose to include among other things protection of "natural systems" and of "wildlife”(18). (Wildlife later made it into an amended first purpose of the Act, but not natural systems (20)). That the Review Panel knew what the outcome would be from their recommendation for a withdrawal of a farming pressure was shown in the use of a word in that forward reference that is rarely correctly associated with Britain (18):
“Elsewhere in our report (see section 6) we identify the opportunity for selected areas to be managed, experimentally, as “wilderness”, especially at higher altitudes and in the remoter areas where nature conservation would be the main objective”

International criterion for national parks

I have written before of the recommendation that the Review Panel made on this, of a number of experimental areas where farming was withdrawn allowing natural vegetation succession to take place, and the lost opportunity it was because none of the national parks took up the challenge that it presented (21). It is part of a pattern of missed direction in the evolution of the national parks system here that goes back to the early decades of the 20th century, and which I will cover more fully at a later time. It is in stark contrast to the situation of the national parks in Germany that I discovered when I researched the protected area systems of Europe for the Scottish Government (22). The aim in Germany is for all of its national parks to meet the international criterion of having 75% of their area that leaves nature untouched, thus allowing “dynamic natural processes” (23). As of April 2015, four exceed that criterion, and the rest are working towards it: two are close, five have greater than half their area, and the rest have a quarter or more.

An evaluation of Germany’s national parks undertaken after my report was completed gives an indication of how it is possible for that criterion to be achieved, since with only one exception, more than 90% of the areas of their national parks are in public ownership (state, federal, local) and there is an aim to have them as completely as possible in public ownership (24). Public ownership allows the decision to be made that the burden of farming production can be taken off the land. I made a stab about five years ago at working out what proportion of the English national parks was in public ownership, based on areas of Public Forest Estate and Defence Estate, estimating that the New Forest National Park may be as high as 66%, the next highest was Northumberland National Park at about 35% (21). The figures on ownership given in the Review Panel report predate the establishment of the New Forest park, but they broadly confirm my other estimates, including that of the area owned by the Peak District National Park Authority itself (around 5%, but which is only topped by the 13% owned by the Breacon Beacons National Park Authority)(18). Thus apart from the New Forest and Northumberland, public ownership rarely gets to 20% in our national parks, and is mostly much less than 10% (18).

Wilderness space for lynx and wolf

Germany gave another example in that it’s National Strategy on Biological Diversity in 2007 put wilderness at the centre of its aspirations for protected areas – “In order to reactivate the natural processes of habitat momentum, a certain proportion of Germany’s territory must be exempted from human influence” (25). The Strategy set an ambitious goal of 2% by 2020, recognising that the untouched core areas of the national parks could make a significant contribution to that goal, and that there could be other contributions from state-owned forests and from land undergoing ecological restoration that is in beneficial ownership (26). The aim is to have large enough areas such that more lynx and wolf could be resettled in Germany, moose could also be reinstated, and these mammals survive in the long term. Germany has lived through the recent voluntary return of wolves (27) while lynx strolled across into the Bavarian Forest National Park after reinstatement in 1980s in the Bohemian Forest of the Czech Republic, and were reinstated in 2002 in the Harz National Park in the Harz Mountains (28). A reinstatement of lynx is planned for this year in the Palatinate Forest on the E border of Germany (29) and which backs on to the Vosges du Nord in France, where there is a sporadic population from a reinstatement of lynx in the southern mountains of the Vosges (30).

To give you an idea about how seriously this commitment to wilderness is taken in Germany, it appears in an Environmental Report that was issued last month by the Advisory Council on the Environment (Sachverständigenrat für Umweltfragen (SRU)) a statutory body that advises the Federal Government (31). The report focussed on six key topics in an integrated approach to environmental policy addressing the ecological challenges facing Germany – one of those topics being entitled More space for wilderness in Germany (32). I translated some of the chapter for this topic and it seems to talk about all the right things, especially the importance of natural processes through the strict implementation of process protection (Prozessschutzes) a German approach to non-intervention management developed by ecologist Knut Sturm. The Report described the reliance of many species on the accumulation of deadwood in forests, a product of those undisturbed natural processes. It also noted that the targeted resettlement of more of the formerly native lynx and wolf should be evaluated as an initial measure for each new wilderness; that these wilderness areas will be important as cores in the transnational ecological network that has been legislated for, the cores acting as important refuges and breeding locations for these predators, the connectivity of the network elements themselves assisting their spread; and that there is good support amongst Germans for spread of lynx (64%) but less so for wolves (44%). I particularly like this statement in the chapter – “Unspoiled nature provides in particular for many people who live in the city, a place to which they crave. There they can experience values such as freedom, originality and spontaneity”

I will get around to translating more, but fortunately there is a summary of the Report and its recommendations in English (see ch. 5 in (33)). SRU recommend a number of measures needed to reach the 2% target, including adequately resourcing administration and management of wilderness; a national awareness campaign on wilderness; launch of a national wilderness initiative supported by federal, state and nature conservation organizations and foundations; development of criteria for wilderness, restrictions on intervention, an inventory of wilderness, and identification of further areas suitable for process protection; and protection of wilderness under federal law. It was recognised that federal and state governments as major landowners were able to make available large areas of land, but it was recognised that beyond this, nature conservation organizations and foundations should receive support for land purchases and follow-up costs.

Laying the consultative foundations for lynx release

As you can imagine, fellow wilderness advocates in Britain could only look with envy at this report and its recommendations, and feel deflated by contrast with the paucity of aspiration for wild nature shown in that eight-point plan for England’s national parks (see above). You just could not imagine any of our statutory nature agencies in their role as advisers to governments ever countenancing a push for wilderness in Britain, let alone take it upon themselves an advocacy for lynx and wolf reinstatement. As it is, for lynx reinstatement, it needed a group of self-identified people, free from the baggage of the conservation industry, but with a range of professional skills, to take on responsibility for independent action where others are paralysed. Thus the day after I visited Scar Close I was at a stakeholder forum event of the Lynx UK Trust where we were to discuss the key areas of agreement, areas of enquiry and areas of concern that have arisen from the Trust's plans for a trial release of lynx. I had responded to the stakeholder consultation late last year, expressing an interest in further involvement, and received the interim consultation document that drew together key points for discussion at the forum event based on responses received from that consultation (34). In one of those unnerving coincidences, an article on lynx reinstatement to Britain being used to illustrate the competing values and contrasting views associated with humans and the natural world was accepted for publication a few days before the forum event (35). It presaged many of the aspects discussed at the forum event, the competing values and contrasting views, but you have to say that the Trust has a good sense of the mountain it has to climb in laying the consultative foundations for a chance of success in its application for a trial release, so committed was it to open discussion during the event, and in its call for sectional representatives to come forward and contribute through an advisory group to the further development of the proposal.

In terms of the latter, perhaps the key issue is identifying which of the three potential release sites is to be the one taken forward for more detailed feasibility and local consultation, the response to the stakeholder consultation ruling out the likelihood of the Lake District and Thetford Forest from the original list of five (34). The Trust stressed that the timescale of approaching the application and release would not be rushed, and that each stage of the process would be completed satisfactorily before moving on. Thus for instance the Trust will be liable for compensation for losses of livestock during the trial, and it is keen to involve the farming community through the advisory group in shaping a scheme. It was stressed that it would be a trial release, and not a reinstatement, and so considerations of viable populations and genetic diversity would come later. It was considered that there would only be one breeding cycle during the five year trial, since it would be unlikely for any breeding in the first year due to settling in, that breeding may take place in the second or third year, but that the offspring stay with their mother for at least a year, utilising multiple den sites. Thus from a release of six lynx, it will only be expected that there would be 10/11 lynx at the end of the trial, the offspring being caught and collared for GPS monitoring, along with the adults.

In the same way that I loathe and will not ascribe ecosystem services to wild nature, an anthropocentric absorption, it would seem belittling of the lynx to list the benefits that were ascribed during the forum event to its reinstatement. It’s not about gain but absence when considering the intrinsic value of lost wild nature. Neither do I want to repeat here all the negative reactions to the trial expressed during the forum event, nor necessarily ascribe them to particular organisations, but the sheep farmer representing Scottish members of the National Sheep Association got it right that discussing the trial and developing the compensation scheme opened the potential for it to go ahead, and which he didn’t want. His is a view of our countryside where there are no threats to the livelihood he gets from his sheep - he constantly cited the threat from the reinstated sea eagle, a threat that is overplayed (36) – but it was that absolutism that eradicated the sea eagle and lynx. Feeling that there was a need at the end of the forum event to lift us out of the impasse that the view of the sheep farmer represented, I noted that no one had ever asked me about the past introductions of non-native species that pose an ecological problem. I gave the examples of sika and muntjac deer, and of the grey squirrel (I should also have mentioned pheasant). I noted that we do sometimes recognise and pull back from the brink when persecution threatens the loss of a species, such as the otter and now hopefully wildcat. But what was so different about that forum event, and in the whole approach of the Trust, was that it was first time I had ever been asked about the release of a species.

Who weren’t there?

As I looked around the room, it was easy to see who, from amongst the farmers, foresters, estate managers, national park authority and species interest groups, appeared sympathetic to the trial release of lynx, even though they had reservations. What there wasn’t in the room was any representation from the fake “rewilders”, the people who want to stuff lots of domestic herbivores into the landscape and call it an experiment. Should I have been surprised? Not really, since the preoccupation of the fake “rewilders”, as exemplified by Paul Jepson, is not about repopulating all trophic levels, the lynx representing a top level predator (37,38). I corresponded with Jepson last year after I criticised his proposals for “rewilding" experiments, and got the admission that he feared he was guilty of ecological illiteracy, and had only been focusing on reassembling the second tier, the herbivores, as part of his “rewilding package”. Jepson pushes out propaganda and self-promotion at a punishing rate, especially now that he has aligned himself with the dreadful “Rewilding” Europe (39). He shows he has no independence of thought from the latter, nor has anything original to contribute to the ecological restoration of Britain, when his sole preoccupation in faunal restoration is to parrot “Rewilding” Europe’s whining that their plastic aurochs and fake wild horses aren’t given special treatment under legislation, when what the fake “rewilders” really want is for them to be treated like native species and to live freely, bankrolled by the European Union, and destroying our natural vegetation.

A stark contrast is presented here: a group of people who are proposing to refill a niche with a former native species to restore ecological function and natural processes, or see our landscapes dotted with the spectacle of open-air zoos of non-native species, and which suck up subsidy. Don’t in any way think that there is any intrinsic ecological value in the latter.

Mark Fisher, 9 June 2016

(1) Coastal temperate rainforest - in Britain?!, Self-willed land June 2015

(2) Dilsea carnosa. The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae

(3) Palmaria palmata. The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae

(4) Saccharina latissima. The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae

(5) Porphyra umbilicalis. The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae

(6) Sargassum muticum. The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae

(7) A comb jelly Beroe cucumis. MarLIN

(8) Sea gooseberry (Pleurobrachia pileus)

(9) Swallowed Whole - a comb jelly preying on a comb jelly

(10) Searching out the wildness. Self-willed land May 2010

(11) Pembrokeshire Grazing Network, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority

(12) Walking the wild places. Self-willed land September 2010

(13) Saying goodbye to ash. Self-willed land December 2012

(14) Jacquemyn, H., Brys, R., & Hutchings, M. J. (2008). Biological Flora of the British Isles: Paris quadrifolia L. Journal of ecology, 96(4), 833-844

(15) Paris quadrifolia, Botanical Society of the British Isles

(16) 8-Point Plan for England’s National Parks, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, National Parks England, Natural England, Environment Agency PB 14424 March 2016

(17) Flooding and cherry picking, Self-willed land February 2014

(18) Fit for the Future. Report of the National Parks Review Panel. Countryside Commission CCP 334 1991

(19) National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949

(20) National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 - Up to date as of 31st March 2015

(21) Nature improvement and restoration areas - are they a step towards rewilding? Self-willed land June 2011

(22) Fisher, M., Carver, S. Kun, Z., McMorran, R., Arrell, K. and Mitchell, G. (2010). Review of Status and Conservation of Wild Land in Europe. Project commissioned by the Scottish Government.

(23) National Parks, Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Germany

(24) Managementqualität deutscher Nationalparks: ERGEBNISSE DER ERSTEN EVALUIERUNG DER DEUTSCHEN NATIONAL PARKS. Nationale Naturlandschaften 2013

(25) National Strategy on Biological Diversity, Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, October 2007

(26) Wildnisgebiete, Biotopschutz und Landschaftsschutz, Bundesamt für Naturschutz

(27) The Return of the Wolf to Germany – Administrative Preparedness and NGO Strategies, Dr. Eick von Ruschkowski, NABU, October 2014

(28) Lynx – Germany. In - Kaczensky, P., Chapron, G., Von Arx, M., Huber, D., Andrén, H. & Linnell, J. 2013. Status, management and distribution of large carnivores - bear, lynx, wolf and wolverine - in Europe. Report to the EU Commission. Part 2

(29) Palatinate Forest, Project Objectives, Lynx in Rhineland-Palatinate, Stiftung Natur und Umwelt Rheinland-Pfalz

(30) Lynx UK Trust lets the cat out of the bag, Self-willed land April 2015

(31) Der SRU, Sachverständigenrat für Umweltfragen

(32) SRU-Umweltgutachten 2016: Impulse für eine integrative Umweltpolitik

(33) ENVIRONMENTAL REPORT 2016: An integrated approach to environmental policy: the way forward Summary May 2016. SRU: German Advisory Council on the Environment

(34) Smith, D.J., O’Donoghue, P., Convery, I., Eagle, A., Piper, S. & White, C. (2016). Lynx UK Trust A National Stakeholder Consultation: An interim consultation document

(35) Gray, J., Brockington, J., Hayward, M., & Walmsley, J. (2016). How the proposed reintroduction of Eurasian lynx to Britain illustrates competing values and contrasting views associated with humans and the natural world. Country-Side, The Journal of the British Naturalists' Association, 36(2).

(36) Sea eagle, Recent Species Projects, Scottish Natural Heritage

(37) A challenge to Rewilding Britain, Self-willed land August 2015

(38) Trophic occupancy and the rehabilitation of the meaning of rewilding, Self-willed land April 2016

(39) Rewilding needs an enabling policy environment, Paul Jepson, Geographical 24 May 2016