Grounds for concern?
Understandably, a human population unaccustomed to living alongside large carnivores will have concerns about their return. This should not be dismissed by conservationists as ill-informed scare mongering. Experiences elsewhere tell us it is essential for the success of a reintroduction that all sectors of the rural community are involved in discussions and have the opportunity to shape policy. A lack of public involvement in the Swiss reintroductions of the 1970s led to a sense of disenfranchisement, particularly among sheep farmers and hunters. As a result, the illegal killing of lynx in Switzerland still occurs today and is a significant mortality factor. Reintroductions to Bavaria and Austria in the 1980s failed because local hunters were opposed to them and it is thought that many of the released animals were shot.
Conservationists will likely see lynx predation of roe as a long overdue return of a missing ecological process. Roe stalking here does not carry the same cultural value as that of open hill red deer or that of roe stalking in many other parts of Europe. Nevertheless, those who partake in the professional or recreational stalking of roe might be resentful of lynx reintroduction, especially if, as the evidence from elsewhere in Europe suggests, deer abundance or behaviour changes significantly and makes it harder to pursue their profession or pastime.
Their reluctance to stray far from cover means that lynx are most unlikely to make a nuisance of themselves on grouse moors. There are, however, concerns about the effect that lynx could have on threatened populations of the forest-dwelling capercaillie. It is true that in boreal landscapes where deer densities are very low and where woodland grouse are abundant lynx supplement their diet with capercaillie. However, in western and central Europe, where deer are much more abundant, capercaillie is a very rare feature of lynx diet. In an intensive study in the Swiss Jura Mountains, the remains of 617 prey animals were recovered, but only one capercaillie was recorded in 10 years. Interestingly, 37 foxes fell prey in the study and as a nest predator they are much more likely to have had a negative impact on the local capercaillie population than the lynx. This fox-killing behaviour is widely reported from around Europe and could actually serve to benefit ground-nesting birds. And who knows what it might mean for wildcats, with which foxes have considerable dietary overlap, or indeed lambs?
Attacks by lynx on sheep, particularly lambs, are known from across Europe and it seems inevitable that lynx would kill sheep here in Scotland. It is important however to put this in perspective. Levels of lynx depredation on sheep in the Carpathians, where shepherding is intensive, are so low as to be virtually non-existent. The opposite end of the scale is the rather unique situation encountered in Norway where no protective measures are taken, but where 2.5 million sheep are grazed each summer in woodland, i.e. prime lynx ambush habitat. With roe deer densities low in much of Norway, hundreds, if not thousands, of sheep are thought to be killed each year. Despite their relative scarcity however, the most common lynx prey species is still the roe deer. Furthermore, where deer densities reach 4 or more per square kilometre, a very modest figure by Scottish standards, predation on sheep is rare. Unlike Norway, the vast majority of woodland in Scotland contains no sheep and the vast majority of sheep are grazed in open habitats. A far more likely scenario for Scotland is the one that occurs in France and Switzerland where intensive shepherding is similarly absent, but where sheep are grazed in open pasture. Here, only a small number of lynx within the population kill sheep and only at very specific locations.
In the Swiss North-western Alps, 77% of 456 sheep pastures experienced no incidences of depredation by lynx in the 20 years up to 1999. A further 15% experienced only one incidence during this time. Of those sheep owners who did lose sheep to lynx, 80% lost three or fewer animals in those 20 years. The distance of the pasture from woodland or scrub has a strong bearing on levels of depredation, with 88% of lynx kills occurring within 200m of the forest edge. The grazing of sheep, particularly lambs, away from the forest edge reduces the risk considerably. Those parts of the landscape that appear to be predisposed to depredation by a succession of lynx justify the use of more costly protection measures. The use of shepherds or guarding animals such as dogs, donkeys and llamas are all recommended for reducing lynx depredation of sheep and are most cost effective where there is an acute problem. In Switzerland such government-funded methods have been extremely effective at reducing the annual number of lynx-killed sheep and goats in Switzerland from a high of 219 in 2000 to fewer than 20 by 2006. It has consistently remained under 50 animals per year since then, fluctuating a little in response to oscillations in the roe deer population.