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Use lynx to cull deer, says top ecologist

Britain's big cat may be reintroduced to help balance nature, 500 years after being hunted to extinction here

It may send a shiver down the spine of the faint-hearted, but one of the UK's leading conservationists is arguing that the European lynx should be reintroduced to Britain, to help control the expanding population of deer. More than 500 years since the animal was wiped out by humans, Professor David Macdonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, believes their return should be considered.

Professor Macdonald warned deer were threatening to reach "pestilential levels" in places. Tens of thousands of the UK's 1.5 million deer are culled every year; a further 50,000 are shot by poachers. The return of the lynx would provide a natural way of controlling deer numbers, he argues.

Speaking ahead of today's publication of his annual State of Britain's Mammals report, written with colleague Dawn Burnham, he said the lynx was the least controversial and most practical candidate for reintroduction into the UK. Beavers have recently been brought back to Scotland and wolves and bears are also potential candidates.

"There is enough food – there are all these roe deer that people are having to control and the lynx could help out. Will they damage anybody's living? Not really. A few sheep would get killed, but Alps experience is that it is manageable.... As far as I'm aware, there is no recorded case of lynx being any danger to people."

Humans and deer are on a collision course over competition for resources, he says. "Deer are provided with an enormous source of food by forestry plantations and farmland. Since this is the same food as we plan to be eating ourselves there is going to be a crunch.... Avoiding this looming impasse urgently requires ingenious research and intelligent policy."