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Is Britain Ready for the Return of the Big Cat?

Rewilding England’s dwindling lynx population is about more than conservation. It’s about connecting to a long-lost sense of enchantment with nature.

A Eurasian Lynx. Photo by dogrando via Flickr

Back in 2012, residents at a caravan park in the British countryside called the local authorities with an urgent concern: a lion was prowling through the woods and fields nearby. The police deployed two helicopters with infrared sensors and swept the woods, while handlers on the ground from a local zoo weeded through the forest, armed with tranquilizers. But the hunt fizzled out. What would later be known as the Essex Lion turned out to be a local woman’s pet, a big Maine Coon affectionately known as “Teddy Bear.”

Teddy Bear’s story taps into the oversized role big cats play in the British imagination. Back when the U.K. was more like Game of Thrones than Downton Abbey, the island was full of predators: wolves, bears, and yes, big cats. A seventh-century Welsh poem contains one of the last surviving historical British references to the lynx, a pointy-eared feline up to three-and-a-half feet long that was hunted to extinction on the island over 1300 years ago. Bears and wolves have gone the same route. These predators were instrumental in maintaining the natural world around them. They preyed on smaller mammals, animals that can throw off entire ecosystems when their populations are left unchecked. But in a modern twist, marrying conservation and inspiration, returning some of these large predators to Britain may become a reality within a decade. Riding on a “rewilding” wave that has been successful in places across the U.K. and Europe, conservation groups are advocating reintroducing the Eurasian lynx back to Britain.

“I see rewilding as the mass restoration of ecosystems, of which the reintroduction of keystone species is a critically important component,” says George Monbiot, author of Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. “For me, rewilding is a process without an end point. We’re not trying to create a new fixed state of nature; we’re trying to allow natural processes to resume. In many ways, the process is the outcome. We want to allow nature to continue to undergo dynamic cycles of change and succession, rather than trying to freeze it in any one point, as all too often conservation attempts do.”

The Eurasian Beaver. Image by Per Harald Olsen via Wikimedia Commons

Rewilding is having something of a historical moment throughout Europe. Many argue that it’s urgently needed in the British Isles, which have suffered from years of intrusive human depletion on ecosystems where wetlands and forests were once abundant. Scotland’s Trees for Life has planted more than a million trees across 1000 square miles of wilderness, reforesting a denuded landscape in the rugged and sparsely populated Scottish Highlands. After humans hunted beavers to extinction 400 years ago in Britain, a reintroduction in Scotland ended this May after a five-year trial and a final report to the Scottish Government. The government will decide later this year whether to expand reintroduction, halt it, or continue to study the beavers. Like lynx, beavers are keystone species that provide critically important ecological services. In the trial period, the beavers significantly contributed to the health of local woodlands along loch shores. The level of water in the lochs also rose due to the beaver dams, increasing the health and diversity of aquatic species. There have even been unofficial or accidental reintroductions that show the viability of wild beavers. All across the British Isles, there is work to reinstate natural processes, which can mean projects like these, restoring wetlands, or even renaturalizing the course of rivers.

But it’s the big cats that really grab people’s attention. After being hunted nearly to extinction in Europe, the size and range of the Eurasian lynx has rebounded, with a European population around 8,000, and an estimated population of 30,000 in Russia.

“Lynx are a priority species for us—we think after the beaver, they are the next great challenge that we want to achieve,” Monbiot tells me. “A keystone species is an ecological engineer which shapes the ecosystem, and allows many other species to survive there. So I do see species such as the lynx and the wolf and the beaver and the boar as being very important, if we’re to make major progress on rebuilding some of the greatly degraded ecosystems that we face.”

Focusing on returning lynx to the island is as sound ecology as it is a gateway into the public imagination. There are plenty of scientific studies that show how the lynx can help keep roe deer populations in check, which would be a huge help to a British countryside overrun with deer. The Lynx UK Trust (LUKT) grabbed headlines earlier this year when they announced plans to reintroduce the feline on three private estates. And although some media suggested 18 lynx could be brought over to the UK by the end of 2015, Monbiot suggests that the reality is more likely a decade. The long process of public persuasion and licensing has only recently begun.

A poster enourages reporting big cat sightings in Sussex. Image via Twitter user @CartridgeInk1

But the project of rewilding, as expressed by Monbiot and others, also strives to recreate a sense of enchantment with nature, to rearticulate the feeling of awe too often lost or forgotten in an urban culture. Already, there is a new spate of supposed big cat sightings across the UK. Many Britons believe exotic cats roam the countryside after their owners were forced to release them following the Dangerous Wild Animals Act passed in 1976. Self-titled big cat spotters patrol rural fields with an eye out for roaming predators, while a plethora of homemade websites have been set up to prove the cats’ existence. Mistaking domesticated cats like Teddy Bear for savage predators is clearly the expression of a hidden desire to find something wild within the mundane. Rewilding promises to turn that desire into a reality.

“My contention is the paranormal phenomenon of big cat sightings … expresses a subliminal desire for a natural world that is richer and wilder than the one we now have in Britain,” said Monbiot. Rewilding may be the very natural extension of the type of hope that accompanies spotting big, exotic predators in the otherwise tame countryside. It may also ultimately help efforts to win the public over to a wilder British future. “The important thing is public advocacy and persuasion. We have to win people over to the idea of bringing these species back, because it should never be done against public opinion; it should always be done with a great majority of people behind it.”

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