The UK public have spoken. People overwhelmingly want these animals to be given the chance to come back and we've got an extremely capable team to deliver it.
The largest ever public survey on whether Eurasian lynx should be re-introduced to the UK has revealed overwhelming public support.
Of over 9,000 people who took part in the survey, 91% supporting a trial reintroduction and 84% believed it should begin within the next 12 months.
The survey was carried out by the Lynx UK Trust (LUKT) with support from the University of Cumbria, and the Trust has today released its results.
"We've been blown away by the level of interest and support from the public", comments chief scientific advisor to the project, Dr Paul O'Donoghue.
"This is by far the biggest survey of its kind ever carried out in the UK, with almost five times the feedback of the original beaver reintroduction survey in Scotland which recorded an 86% approval rating.
"That led to government approval for the trial reintroduction, so we're expecting to see a consistent response from Scottish Natural Heritage and hope for similar in England and Wales.
"The UK public have spoken. People overwhelmingly want these animals to be given the chance to come back and we've got an extremely capable team to deliver it.
"We are in a very positive and collaborative dialogue with both Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage and are working towards an introduction before the end of 2015. We are also considering introduction sites in Wales and expect to be making a formal approach to the Countryside Council for Wales."
A 1,300 year absence
The Eurasian lynx is the UK's native 'big cat' that was once a sgnificant predator of deer, wild boar, foxes and other large wildlife species.
"Typically 85% is the Eurasian lynx's diet is deer, so ecologically a huge benefit to Britain to bring the species back as we are suffering form chronic deer overpopulation", says O'Donoghue. "The British countryside is suffering badly and lynx could be its saviour.
Lynx have been successfully reintroduced across Europe, with the best managed programs constructing whole new eco-friendly industries such as wildlife tourism around their presence, breathing new economic life into remote rural communities.
Now the LUKT team hope that reintroduction here will provide a valuable natural control on the UK's overpopulated deer species, leading to forest regeneration and a boost to the entire ecosystem.
"Lynx have proven themselves across Europe to be absolutely harmless to humans and of very little threat to livestock", says O'Donoghue, adding that their reintroduction would bring "huge benefit to rural economies and the natural ecology, including species like capercaillie which face some serious problems in the UK.
"Lynx also prey on foxes so you could say they are the gamekeeper's best friend. I predict a net loss of livestock loss where lynx are introduced - exact opposite of what the farming lobby fears.
"It's wonderful that the general public want to see lynx given the chance to do the same here. With no natural threats and bringing a great range of benefits to humans, the time is perfect to bring back the lynx to the British Isles."
Over half of the people who filled in the survey were from rural communities, returning a level of support only 5-6% lower than urban communities, showing that this project has considerable support from people who live and work in the UK countryside.
Support confirmed by opinion poll
Critics could argue that the survey was not representative of the UK as a whole as participation was elective - giving a stronger represeantation to people with extreme views on either side of the argument who chose to commit time to responding.
So to gauge the broader spread of public opinion LUKT commissioned a further survey using traditional opinion polling techniques. Just over 1,000 people representatively spread across age and social demographics were selected, and a support level of 70% for the principle of lynx reintroduction was recorded, with 60% supporting it with 12 months.
The results of the survey and poll were analysed by Dr Ian Convery and Dr Darrell Smith of the University of Cumbria. "As with the pro-active online survey, this representative sample shows very strong support for lynx, again at rates comparable with that for beavers, and with those against lynx reintroduction numbering very low", said Dr Convery.
As for the main survey, he said, "It's an impressive sample size of people who feel really strongly about lynx reintroduction, and consistently all of the results and analyses are extremely positive."
Formal applications to reintroduce lynx on the way
Buoyed by the results, the LUKT are continuing public consultation and education activities, and preparing formal applications for trial reintroductions.
Applications to Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage are expected to be completed by summer for sites in Norfolk, Cumbria, Northumberland and Aberdeenshire, with the Trust still evaluating potential release sites in Wales.
Up to six lynx would be released at each site and closely monitored via satellite collars over a trial period likely to last for 3-5 years.
"We're delighted to learn of the British public's overwhelming support for this project which we believe will ensure its success", comments Roger Leese, a partner at law firm Clifford Chance, which will be drafting the applications.
"Our next step, supporting the Lynx UK Trust in submitting its applications for trial reintroductions, will be ground breaking in the area of UK environmental and conservation law. It's a complex legal challenge and we are committed to supporting the Trust from the centre, not the sidelines."
The Scottish National Farmers Union has issued a cautious statement on the issue in which Andrew Bauer, Deputy Director of Policy falls short of opposing lynx re-introduction: "Whilst the prospect of lynx reintroduction has left some breathless with excitement, there are good reasons why the farming community is more wary ...
"As a member of the National Species Reintroduction Forum, NFU Scotland would be involved in the scrutiny of any application and would feed in the many views and concerns likely to be voiced by our membership. Should it be clear that the risk to farming is unacceptable, NFU Scotland would act accordingly."
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
Also on The Ecologist: 'Reintroduce lynx? Fine - but we must control the apex predator'.
More information: Lynx UK Trust.