Reintroducing lynx – sensing an atmosphere of wildness


I see roe deer on most days walking ancient woodland, often when I follow their narrow tracks. One, sometimes two, there is that moment as they are frozen in place, judging the situation before they romp away for deeper cover. There can be herons too in these woodlands where a beck runs through, although the heron is much quicker to take flight. It is a joy of wild nature to see these free-living creatures in nearby woodland settings, including the occasional kingfisher and dipper.

A fellow wildland enthusiast walks his local moor to the W of Sheffield most days and has developed an instinct for when best to see the red deer that make it their home. For him, the 70 years or so of no farming on the moor have brought an atmosphere that he doesn’t find anywhere else. He sees the deer on an almost daily basis and his blog has many inspirational photographs (1). The respect for the red deer is obvious:
“I can imagine nothing that looks so right in this landscape. True autochthons – a wonderful word”

I admire his good fortune, my local moor being treeless in comparison to his. But I told him about an incident on the moor last autumn when I scared up a pheasant, which in turn disturbed two roe deer as it landed in tall bracken. This was the first time I had seen roe deer on the moor, but it seems likely now that they often use the moor over late summer and into autumn in the cover of this bracken, possibly leaving their young in safety there. It would explain the small tracks through the bracken that have nothing to do with footpaths. He replied that it was incidents like this with the roe deer and the pheasant that bring a place to life. He also pointed out the absurdity of wildlife agencies putting pictures of cattle or sheep on the covers of their publications, when this completely marginalises the wild creatures in our landscapes.

I had thought it would be a few years before the roe deer would use the moor, now that it is at the very early stages of developing a woodland cover. The post FMD era has seen the one commoner lose interest in grazing the moor with sheep, and we can now track the progress of tree seedlings across the moor as rowan seed is pooped out by birds, and the oak that we think gets there by the woodland jays distributing acorns. It will be a longer process for the other tree species, but there is birch and ash creeping on from around the moorland edge.

Craven limestone woodland

Regaining woodland cover seems a more dynamic process in limestone countryside than my acidic moor, as I saw in the grassland of South House Pavement where the traditional sheep grazing of that landscape has been excluded. I would expect the roe deer that I saw traversing the tree plantings on the adjacent South House Moor will also visit this developing new habitat.

I have watched roe deer in the woodland of limestone country for a number of years, and a favourite walk is the contrasting landscape up through Grass Wood into Bastow Wood and thence onto Conistone Old Pasture. All of this is on carboniferous limestone, with its rock outcrops, scar precipices, scree and limestone pavement (the rectangular limestone blocks that are deeply divided– see (2)). The interest is thus both in the geology as well as the ancient woodland of Grass and Bastow Woods, this extensive remnant upland woodland area being uncommon on limestone in the Yorkshire Dales.

The original woodland of the Craven limestone area would have been ash dominating over the limestone soils, with wych elm and oak, and an understorey of hazel. But felling and replanting with non-natives in Grass Wood has altered the dominant woodland structure, extensively modifying its composition and making it a less natural woodland than the adjacent Bastow Wood. Where Grass Wood scores over Bastow Wood is in its exceptional woodland ground flora, the floristic value owing its continuing existence to the continuity of the woodland cover, which is the thing that gives it recognition as ancient woodland, but also because of the lack of a recent history of sheep grazing in the wood that has evidently in the past cleared through the woodland ground flora of Bastow Wood (3).

It is Bastow Wood though that has the better feel to it, an atmosphere of wildness now that it is free of sheep. I see roe deer in both woods, but Bastow has none of the alien disturbance and human management of Grass Wood, and it is easier to envision the interplay of wild species with the landscape. As well as the roe deer, I see woodcock there, and young hedgehogs, and came across the spiny skin of a hedgehog, suggesting that it may have met its end from a fox. Rabbits are a plague there, as they are in much of our landscape, but this species introduced by the Normans eats and is eaten, as is the way of wild nature. Extensive rabbit damage can be seen on tree saplings in the nibbled stems and debarking, holding back their growth. But this is mostly in larger openings in the woodland, where the rabbits have a clear view around them, and not at the woodland edge. The fox as a predator of these rabbits is an important influence on where the rabbits feed, and is therefore protecting the young tree growth of the woodland and woodland edge through inducing fear.

Rabbits also nibble young trees as they pop up from growing in the grykes of the limestone pavement in the open landscape of Consitone Old Pasture. There is no woodland to speak of there, the large areas of neatly grazed grassland around the pavements looking like a mown lawn. The sheep and occasional cattle pretty much have this landscape to themselves, but a few scattered ash and hawthorn trees remain in the limestone pavement, their precarious long term existence depending on whether some of their offspring seeded into the grykes can get away and grow up in spite of the rabbit nibbling (sheep rarely venture away from the grassland and onto the unstable pavement). As the rabbit population fluctuates through the annual cull and outbreaks of myxomatosis, so too does the flourishing of this ash, hawthorn and birch scrub and woodland. I keep note of two of these regenerating areas, watching their progression, and was rewarded one day with coming across a roe deer relaxing in the shade of one. It seemed like a seal of approval for this extension of their woodland habitat.

I have also seen feral cats in this pavement landscape, including coming across a mother and her litter in the safety of one of the shallower grykes. Although a distinct rarity, they too could have an influence on rabbit populations and where they nibble, having once seen a feral cat there with a dead rabbit in its mouth defiantly hold its ground rather than flee at my presence. The fierceness in its face made me think of its native wild ancestor, the wildcat that looks like a tabby and is now confined to the Highlands of Scotland. It used to live throughout the whole of Britain.

The wildcat is an animal of scrub and woodland that makes dens in hollow trees or rock crevices, hunting at dawn and dusk for small mammals. The loss of scrub and woodland habitat would be one reason for the decline and loss of wildcat from this limestone area, but the real culprit was human persecution. Regarded as a predator of livestock and game, it was disliked so much that it was included in the Vermin Act (1566). This put a price on its head resulting in its systematic killing and eradication from the English countryside - the wildcat had disappeared by the mid-19th century (4).

We know that wildcat lived in the limestone landscape of the Yorkshire Dales as its bones were found in the excavated sediment of Elbolton Cave, near Thorpe just three miles south of Bastow Wood. This cave has also yielded the bones of artic fox, ptarmigan, mountain hare and reindeer, indicative of the tundra like conditions from the late glacial period dating from 13,000 years ago, as well as the bones of wolf, wild boar and brown bear that would have lived along with the wildcat in the warmer period after the glaciers had receded (5). Ptarmigan and mountain hare cling on in the Highlands of Scotland, but we have lost the artic fox and reindeer, as we have also lost wolf, brown bear and wild boar (6). So many wild animals – autochthons – lost to this limestone landscape, losing for us that atmosphere of wildness.

Lynx in the landscape

The bones of lynx, a larger woodland cat, have also been found in a number of limestone caves around Giggleswick and Settle, some 10 miles to the W of Bastow Wood (5). It had been assumed that the lynx had died out in Britain early in the post-glacial period as radiocarbon dating of bones recovered from caves in Devon and Derbyshire showed them to be from 9,000 years ago. The demise of the lynx in Britain was thus attributed to a catastrophic re-emergence of tundra and the retreat of woodland during the onset of a late colder period running from 11,000 to 10,000 years ago. Doubt was cast on this theory though when lynx bones from a cave near Inchnadamph in Sutherland were found with a surprisingly younger age of only 1770 years ago (7). This was confirmed when the dating of bones found in Moughton Fell Fissure Cave near Settle (since destroyed by quarrying) showed the lynx lived there in Roman times, between AD80 and AD320, and bones from Kinsey Cave near Giggleswick showed an animal that probably lived between AD425 and AD600 – making it the most recent record of lynx in Britain (8).

The younger dating of lynx bones indicates that its extinction was more likely to be from a human cause than a climatic one. For many, this re-appraisal gives justification for a reintroduction of lynx, as has happened in a number of European countries (9,10,11) but it leaves me wondering what it says for the land cover of the limestone country of the Yorkshire Dales.

Lynx are ambush hunters, not suited to chasing their prey like the wolf. A wolf is a cursorial hunter that while it is much slower over short distances than its quarry, succeeds because it has superior endurance over long distances. The lynx instead needs a wooded or complex rocky landscape (perhaps 40% of cover) to enable it to stalk its prey and jump out in surprise. We know from the surviving lynx populations in continental Europe that roe deer are the main prey of the lynx that would have occupied Britain, and so while I have watched roe deer in this limestone landscape, I have also tried to imagine lynx as they too add to this atmosphere of wildness. It helps that I have the memory of a bobcat I saw a few years ago - the bobcat is one of four members of the lynx family still in existence. It passed within a few feet of me when its afternoon sleep was disturbed as I walked a state park on the Californian coast. While it looked determinedly annoyed at having its rest interrupted, it had the sleek litheness of an animal that could be coiled for explosive action.

Bastow Wood gives me a feel of lynx territory, and if a lynx tired of eating roe deer there, it could look for variety and begin to make a dent in the rabbit population instead. But present day Bastow Wood is a small island in a sea of treeless open country, and it would be assumed that most of the woodland will have been lost in the limestone landscape by the time of the arrival of the Romans. Thus how did the lynx cling on in this landscape until years after the Romans had left? Was it a much different landscape than we see today, with perhaps more scattered woodland?

It is known that the valley sides and tops were farmed extensively since at least 4000 years ago, and there are many examples in the landscape of prehistoric and Romano-British farming landscapes, from tiny square ‘Celtic’ fields for growing crops to large field systems running in parallel up to the top, and probably used for farming cattle and sheep (12). All this tends to suggest that woodland clearance was a pre-requisite for this land use, and there is evidence from many sites for a prehistoric impact on vegetation from the Neolithic period onwards, increasing in the Bronze Age and culminating in a major clearance zone in the Iron Age-Romano/British periods. Any clearance of woodland by land users would have been followed by the loss of the soil that would have built up over the limestone rock under this woodland, revealing the pavement structures that we see today (13).

Information is sparse after the Roman period until we reach the Norman Conquest, after which much of the land was set aside for hunting by the nobility, and then was parcelled out to the monasteries, which used it primarily for sheep grazing in which transhumance was practiced, with large sheep flocks grazed on the Craven uplands during the summer. Sheep grazing in any era would have prevented the regeneration of woodland and would have accelerated the process of soil loss from most upland pavement surfaces, the vegetation cover becoming increasingly fragmented. Clearly, this brief history of land use is not helpful other than the systematised monastic sheep grazing perhaps bracketing the end of lynx in the limestone landscape. A workshop in Yorkshire in 2006 however drew people together to re-think the Craven limestone landscape. It was apparent that gaps in knowledge existed, and that to form a better picture of tree cover would need the securing of more pollen records (14).

Tim Taylor, Bradford University, reported that preliminary pollen results from a new section at Stump Cross caverns, six miles to the E of Bastow Wood, suggested a later deforestation than is normally presumed from Neolithic farming activity. He speculates that hunting as a social distinction may have existed before the Norman conquest, so that the privileged of Neolithic society may have hung on to hunting rather than ditch it when farming came along. Thus parts of Craven may have been managed in a transition from wild woodland (the natural state) to a wildscape (a mixed, cultural wild landscape) from as early as 6,000 years ago.

Terry O’Connor, York University, said that the finds in caves led him to ask how the predator/prey relations worked in such a large mammalian community that included reindeer, wolves, bears, lynx and people? He too was surprised at the later survival of lynx, given the current knowledge on landscape cover. When I contacted him about this, he pointed to the need for more pollen data, but speculated that a combination of scattered scrub and the physicality of the limestone geology may have given sufficient cover in some places for it to hang on in small numbers.

Sensing an atmosphere of wildness

This is what I look for now and imagine when I walk the limestone landscapes. Given that woodland clearance increasingly became the norm, it is possible that lynx could have hung on after the Romans by a combination of a rocky topography, and by creating their own scrubby woodland cover by instilling fear in the herbivores that hold woodland regeneration back by their nibbling. This is not a recipe for reintroducing lynx now to this mostly open landscape, and Bastow Wood would have to be massively larger to establish a breeding community of lynx with any confidence. A larger scale of potential habitat has been identified for the possible reintroduction of lynx to the Scottish Highlands (15) but much of this is non-native sitka spruce plantation rather than native trees and thus raises issues about our knowledge of the quality of this habitat for lynx. The Colorado Division of Wildlife would have assumed a fair chance of success when in 1999 they began reintroducing the Canadian lynx to the vast area of designated wilderness in the Park Range of the Rocky Mountains (16). Their early joy at establishing breeding pairs was tempered in later years when breeding was forestalled by a drop in the numbers of snowshoe hares, their main quarry, something they had not considered.

Lynx reintroduction should happen in Britain so that even if we never see this elusive wildcat ourselves, we can sense an atmosphere of wildness that it will bring, and see the results of its influence on the landscape. We should give it spaces that have all the wild qualities that it will grace itself, and that means rewilding large areas. And we must learn from our unhappy past that we are the greatest threat, extinguishing so many wild animals like the wolf and brown bear, as well as the wildcat from England, so that we must give our protection to the lynx and to the rewilded areas that they occupy.

Mark Fisher 3 February 2009

(1) Blacka Moor

(2) Geology and geomorphology, Limestone Pavement Conservation

(3) Grass Wood, Wharfedale,_Wharfedale

(4) Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation's Wildlife, Roger Lovegrove (2007) OUP ISBN-10: 0198520719

(5) A Gazetteer of Non-Human Vertebrate Remains from Caves in the Yorkshire Dales Described in the Scientific Literature, Chamberlain, A.T. (2002) Capra 4

(6) Fauna Britannica - The practical guide to wild & domestic creatures of Britain, Duff Hart-Davis (2002) Wiedenfield and Nicolson ISBN 0-2897-82532-1

(7) AMS radiocarbon dates for some extinct Scottish mammals, Kitchener AC, Bonsall C (1997) Quaternary Newsletter 83: 1-11

(8) New evidence for the occurrence of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in medieval Britain, Hetherington, D.A., Lord, T.C., Jacobi, R.M. (2006) Journal of Quaternary Science 21, 3–8.

(9) Bones show man wiped out lynx, Paul Kelbie, Independent 11 October 2005

(10) Reintroducing Lynx to UK One Step Closer, Media Release, University of Aberdeen 10th October 2005

(11) Dales bones reveal fate of the Lynx, Grassington Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority 10 October 2005

(12) Upper Wharfedale, Out of Oblivion – a landscape through time, YDNPA

(13) Plant ecology, Limestone Pavement Conservation

(14) From wildness to wildscape: questions from archaeological theory, Timothy Taylor (2006) Re-thinking Craven's limestone Landscape, North Craven Historical Research Group

(15) A potential habitat network for the Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx in Scotland, Hetherington, D, Miller, D, Macleod, C, and Gorman, M (2008) Mammal Review 38: 285-303

(16) Lynx reintroduction program hindered by lack of hare research: Biologists say more research is needed on key prey species, Bob Berwyn, Summit Daily News 23 August 2008