Do we need big cats to roam our countryside?
Friday 3rd July 2015
PETER FROST asks whether it’s time to bring the wild lynx back to Britain
BIG cat sighting are a staple of local papers and TV reports. Remember the Essex lion? Most are hoaxes or misidentifications, usually of domestic cats or domestic cats turned feral.
Substantiated reports refer to feral domestic cats, bigger, fitter and stronger than their home-loving cousins, leaping a five-bar gate with a full-grown rabbit in their jaws.
Some big cat sightings are undoubtedly genuine but in a nation where most people now carry a phone with a good camera, it is surprising how few sightings are backed up with good photos or video. Actual captures or dead animals are even rarer.
Many of these big cats are certainly escaped pets or captive animals released when they get too big or to troublesome to keep.
Many big cats are available on the pet black market and exotic leopard cubs and similar are often bought by people with more money than sense. The cubs grow fast and the next thing you know they are in the boot of the Jaguar — what else — and being dumped in the nearest woodland.
Let’s look at the suspects: the leopard (Panthera pardus) is widespread and adaptable. This sleek, athletic big cat can range from greyish yellow to a rich buff or chestnut, with black spots and rosettes. Black panthers — a type of leopard — are very common. Leopards can grow up to six feet and weigh 200lb.
The puma (Felis concolor) has many different names including cougar and mountain lion. Its fur is buff or sandy brown to reddish brown, sometimes light silver and slate grey or black, usually with no markings. This big cat is nocturnal. Pumas can be as big and heavy as leopards.
The jungle cat (Felis chaus) is misnamed. It lives in moist reedy areas and among agricultural crops. It is sandy or yellowish-grey to a greyish brown or tawny red, cream underparts and striped legs, 33” and 30lb.
Caracal (Felis caracal) — sometimes mistakenly classified as a desert lynx — has large pointed black ear tufts of black hair. Its coat is tawny brown to brick red. Nocturnal, it hunts birds, rodents and reptiles. It can jump several feet into the air to catch birds. It is three feet long plus tail and weighs up to 40lb.
The British wildcat looks like a larger and heavier version of the domestic tabby cat but is a distinct species. It has a broad face, very obvious body stripes and a thick, striped, blunt tail. Mainly nocturnal, the wildcat is secretive and very rarely seen. It often interbreeds with feral domestic cats.
Britain once had its own native big cat, a species of lynx, but it was hunted to extinction centuries ago. Now some naturalists are suggesting we bring back wild lynx to our countryside. There are a number of lynx species that might qualify. Lynx look like domestic tabby cats on steroids and all have distinctive ear tufts.
Largest is the Eurasian lynx, with males averaging 45lb and females a little less. Iberian lynx are smaller, with males weighing in at 26lb and females slightly smaller. The Canadian lynx is the smallest, with males averaging just 22lb and females even less.
Bringing back the lynx is, as you would expect, a controversial idea. Sorry Ukip, but under the European Habitats Directive we have a legal obligation to study the desirability of reintroducing species that have become extinct from our countryside.
Some people, me included, would love to see these elegant tiny tigers wandering our woods and hills and controlling the plagues of escaped ornamental deer that are destroying our woodlands. It would boost wildlife tourism in many areas too.
Others fear that these carnivores would kill our sheep and lambs, threaten the livelihoods of farmers, endanger other native British species and terrorise both pet owners and parents.
One favourite for any re-introduction is the Iberian lynx, which is the most threatened species of wildcat on Earth — down to just 300 animals in the wild. If this animal becomes extinct it will be the first lost feline since prehistoric times.
The Iberian lynx is the closest surviving relative of the original British lynx. Its main diet is rabbits and Britain has often had a problem controlling populations of rabbit — a non-native species. Sadly the Iberian lynx is not really big enough to have much effect on our plague of small muntjac deer.
An alternative is the bigger Eurasian lynx. This would make the British food chain more natural, boost tourism and control muntjac deer. European studies have found little risk to domestic livestock from lynx. They sometimes eat grouse and pheasants, which will bring them into conflict with landowners and our Tory government.
We are all concerned when we read of world problems threatening the continued existence of the tiger all around the world. Should we not encourage our own miniature tigers in this green and pleasant land?