Reintroducing keystone species is currently a well debated conservation topic, with the reintroduction of lynx to the United Kingdom being at the forefront. With human infrastructure, especially roads, and remaining forest located in patches, is suitable habitat in Scotland simply too fragmented to support a viable population of lynx?
Reintroducing species to an area in which they were once located is never easy and there are a variety of very important issues to consider. Reintroducing the Eurasian lynx, Lynx lynx, is without doubt a very complicated issue, with questions raised over whether there is enough and the right kind of prey; problems revolving around possible sheep predation as well as ecological effects. Another factor that has to be considered is whether there is even enough habitat to support a viable population of the animal.
The Eurasian lynx is a solitary mammal, which will roam forested areas in search of prey, such as roe deer and small mammals. It is clear that a suitable release site needs to have large areas of dense forest, but territory size of lynx can differ from 20 km2 to more than 400 km2, with the amount of prey heavily influencing this (Lynx UK Trust, 2015). As a species which uses its forested environment to ambush its prey, it would be unwilling to venture out across open areas of Scotland to reach another forested patch.
Wooded areas in Scotland are recorded at almost 20% of the total land area, the figure in 2010 was estimated as 17.8%, 1,385 thousand ha (Forestry Commission, 2011). The question is whether the existing areas of forest are in too many isolated patches and fragmented by human infrastructure. This would influence the lynx’s ability to naturally move around, interact with others to mate and therefore the future of the population.
With reference to data from Switzerland and using GIS a study by Hetherington et al (2008), considered whether Scotland had enough habitat for a viable lynx population. Taking into account factors such as human infrastructure, large water bodies and areas with too little habitat, suitable habitat for lynx was identified. Their study found that there were two areas of Scotland (the Highlands and Southern Uplands) which could potentially support a population of lynx, this is around 20,000 km2 of habitat in total. Hetherington et al also estimated that overall the Highlands could potentially support about 400 lynx, although the Southern Uplands would support only 50. The viability of a population of around 400 lynx would be relatively high however the long-term survival of a population of 50 animals could be considered unviable. Therefore the lack of connectivity between the two areas is an issue.
With much speculation about future lynx reintroduction to Scotland, it does appear that there is enough habitat in the Highlands to support the species. However the study considered in this article is a few years out of date now but connectivity is still a concern. It could therefore be argued that lynx reintroduction is not something which should happen in the near future on the basis that the ecosystem needs to be considered first. Therefore rewilding in terms of planting trees and recreating habitat may be more important currently, so that if the lynx is ever reintroduced it has a much greater chance of long-term survival.
Forestry Commission. (2011) National Forest Inventory Woodland Area Statistics: Scotland[www document].www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/NFI_Scotland_woodland_area_stats_2010_FINAL.pdf/$FILE/NFI_Scotland_woodland_area_stats_2010_FINAL.pdf(Accessed February 2016).
Hetherington, D., Miller, D., MacLeod, C. and Gorman, M. (2008) ‘A potential habitat network for the Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx in Scotland’, Mammal Review, 38, (4), 285-303.
Lynx UK Trust. (2015) European Lynx (Lynx lynx) Species Description [www document].www.lynxuk.org/lynx.html (Accessed February 2016).