Sheep Farmers fire dud in Lynx reintroduction battle

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Peter Smith of the Wildwood Trust with one of their Lynx. photo: Miles King

The National Sheep Association (NSA) is a charity, originally founded in 1892 as the National Sheep Breeders Association (stop sniggering at the back). It has just over 6000 members, and as such is a very small charity, if measured by those terms. However they are also relatively wealthy, having recently received a generous £300k+ bequest and have plenty of money in the bank. Whether the NSA’s members feel that their money is being spent well, will be considered later in this post.

The NSA’s charitable purpose is

“To encourage and improve breeding, management and promotion of sheep as a species and as an activity in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in pursuit of advancing education, health, heritage, science, environmental protection and improvement and animal welfare for the public benefit.”

Whether this charitable purpose would make it through the Charity Commission application process these days, is certainly a question worth asking. Can promoting sheep – a species that originated in central Asia, really be considered to be in the public benefit? If I wanted to start a charity promoting, say, the Lentil (which also originated in Central Asia) would it get through the CC maze? I doubt it.

Never mind, the NSA is a charity and does charitable work. Their front man is the appropriately named Phil Stocker, and I will resist the temptation to call him Phil “over” Stocker. Or I may not.

Mr Stocker and the NSA like the idea of returning the extinct native wild cat the Lynx to Britain, about as much as the Angling Trust like the idea of the vegetarian non-fish-eating Beaver returning to rivers. Stocker has previously made various hysterical pronouncements about the threat that introducing a handful of Lynx in a few places in Britain  would have to the mighty sheep growing industry.

Worried that the Lynx reintroduction campaign is continuing to gain momentum, the NSA decided to do what is regarded as fairly standard practice these days, to produce a “scientific report” entitled the Wider Consequences of the Introduction of Lynx to the UK. This is not a good start though, as the report fails to address any consequences of Lynx reintroduction, except those which might affect sheep.

The report includes some case studies to back up its claims, including, bizarrely, the damage inflicted on the sheep industry by Ravens.

Yes, Ravens.

Ravens are attacking sheep here in Dorset. A Dorset sheep farm has gained a licence from Natural England to kill up to four Ravens a year. It is not clear how many sheep have been killed by the Ravens.

What has that got to with Lynx? Ravens were until relatively recently a very rare sight across most of Britain. Ravens are now thankfully increasing in numbers, partly because they are not being killed by landowners. Is the NSA suggesting they should be eradicated again, because a few sheep have been attacked? We are not told, but the implication is clear. Ravens attack sheep, so they should be killed; Lynx attack sheep and should not be reintroduced.

Another case study looks at sheep attacks by dogs, though mainly focusses on how little compensation sheep farmers receive following dog attacks.   Unhelpfully, the case study gives not indication of how many sheep are attacked by dogs in Britain annually. This is especially odd, given that this is one of the NSA’s main campaigns, and they have produced reports about it previously. In 2013, they reported 739 dog attacks cost an estimated £1m to the industry. The NFU estimated 18000 livestock (that will be mostly sheep) were killed by dogs last year.

To cap all this obfuscation and diversion, the NSA finishes off with the frankly ridiculous claim that

“sheep grazing, at appropriate stocking densities, allows for a species-rich environment, clean water and carbon storage.”

Who would make such a claim? Is it a quote from a paper in the Journal of Ecology? No, the source of the claim is another NSA report entitled “Environmental Benefits: Complementary Role of Sheep in Less Favoured Areas”.

Stocker has also produced various quotes to go along with the report, including the priceless

“Sheep play an important part of maintaining the biodiversity of the current, perfectly functioning ecosystem, which would be disrupted by the introduction of an unnecessary predator.”

and this

“Around 75% of biodiversity in the UK has a relationship with agriculture and, as a country, we have invested heavily in agri-environment schemes to enhance this. Grassland environments, which are considered to be an attractive and desirable part of our countryside, are largely managed by sheep farming.”

What Stocker and the NSA conveniently ignore is that the low-intensity agriculture which British wildlife used to have a relationship with, has by and large disappeared, replaced by intensive farming, for which there is no place for wildlife. This is as true on the overgrazed fells of Cumbria as it is on the Maize-filled fields of the south-west.

Stocker also ignores the fact that 17000 sheep and lambs a year are killed by domestic dogs, with many more maimed and traumatised. How many sheep would really be taken  by a few dozen Lynx? Unlike dogs, Lynx only kill what they will eat. I would suggest that it would be around 1000 times more likely for a sheep farmer in Britain to lose an animal to a domestic dog than a Lynx if they were reintroduced.

If sheep farmers invested in sheep dogs (the original ones that guarded sheep flocks against predators, rather than the ones that round them up) they would prevent dog attacks as well as Lynx attacks. The NSA report does mention them, though strangely calls them “Guardian dogs”. It notes that in the USA 40% of sheep farms have such Sheep Dogs, but then claims that it wouldn’t work in Britain, because neighbours would complain about the dogs barking. Having lived in rural England, I can assure the NSA that there are already plenty of dogs barking in the countryside.

This report is riddled with fatuous claims, errors and anecdote. It ignores or downplays all the scientific evidence for the benefits of reintroducing predators such as the Lynx; and places the sheep on an altar where its needs must be met, above all else. Perhaps that is to be expected from the NSA, but still. What particularly surprised me was that the BBC should give free publicity, uncritically, to such a poor piece of work.

It comes down to what Society wants.

In 2013 there were nearly 15 million sheep in England alone. We subsidise the sheep industry very heavily, especially in the hills. And every sheep farmer who lost a sheep taken by a Lynx would be compensated.

The Lynx Trust claim that reintroducing Lynx would add £60 or £70m a year to the economy. I think this is entirely the wrong argument to use. It’s really not about the money; it’s about what sort of a country we want to live in.

Do we really want 15 million sheep and no Lynx, or 14,999,900 sheep and a few Lynx?

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in lynx, National Sheep Association and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Sheep Farmers fire dud in Lynx reintroduction battle

  1. Lindsay says:

    Lynx win my vote every time. Nothing against sheep but, let’s face it, they have far more problems than a few lynx to contend with. It is typical of organisations like the NSA to make claims like climate change mitigation without really understanding climate change at all.

  2. Agree bring back the proper guard dogs. These are the mastins in Spain and some have been reintroduced to areas where a few wolves still roam.

  3. My vote also goes unsurprisingly to the Lynx.

  4. Brian Eversham says:

    My vote goes to Lynx sp. too, but I’d ask whether Iberian Lynx might be equally appropriate. I’ve yet to find any analysis of postglacial Lynx subfossils which identify which species of Lynx was formerly native. It would also be a greater conservation benefit. Unlike the substantially larger European Lynx, the Iberian has declined to near-extinction, and its surviving populations struggle because of the scarcity of rabbits in Spain and Portugal. I suspect there would be a lobby against Iberian Lynx too (if people can object to pine martins, they’ll object to any carnivore), but the NSA could rest in peace, and many a land-owner might be willing to have a few fewer rabbits…

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Brian. I remember listening to a talk by Chris Thomas a few years back, also promoting the idea of (re) introducing the Iberian Lynx, partly to provide it with a climate refuge. But isnt part of the argument in favour of bringing Lynx back, that it will help to reduce the size of the burgeoning UK Roe deer population?

    • The Iberian lynx was never (as far as I’m aware) native to the British Isles, so that would in my opinion be an introduction, not a reintroduction. It’s an important difference. In order to justifiably argue any species reintroduction, as well as make it more likely to be succesful, we need to select the species that is as genetically close as possible to those that once lived here. Genetic testing has revealed that lynx from Northern and Eastern Europe would closest fit that bill.
      As Miles stated in his reply, the main reason for reintroducing the Eurasian lynx would be to provide us with a more natural means of managing the deer over-population problem, aiding rather than replacing current deer management strategies. While the Eurasian lynx do favour preying on roe deer, they also prey on female red deer and calves. A small scale lynx reintroduction would probably not impact significantly on actual deer numbers, but will have the benefit of keeping the herds on the move, reducing grazing pressure in the areas where they currently feel safe.

  5. auraengus kenchington says:

    Firstly thanks for an exemplary piece of blogging and insight. I too fall on the side of increasing biodiversity in our environment and I would agree that you require the predators at the top of the chain to be there for balance.

    I have interacted with the farming community (healthcare) over many years and I regret many of them in my experience are really not aware and apparently incapable of being so. This report shows signs of that lack of understanding and awareness.

    This I put down to brain damage due to repeated exposure to toxic agricultural chemicals over many years, which I fear has deeply affected farmers and farming not only in the UK but worldwide. It may require a new generation of farmers and non toxic farming systems before we can have a balanced argument.

  6. Steve Carver says:

    Good job of tearing this NSA report to shreds, as if it didn’t already have enough holes in it! I don’t know Phil (over)Stocker but I do know his mate Phil Walling (he of the the book “Counting Sheep”). I had to contend with him at the RGS sponsored “Who’s green and pleasant land?” debate at the Mountain Arts Festival in Keswick last November. He banged on and on about lynx eating his sheep, chickens, dogs, children, etc. so much that after a bit everyone groaned when he opened his mouth. I read his book and reviewed it for ECOS. Very informative on sheep. Not so informative in the final analysis; in fact the last chapter is little more than a misinformed rant on rewilding. see: https://www.banc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/ECOS-36-3-4-56-Book-Reviews.pdf

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Steve. it was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Or beavers.

      What is it with high profile sheep-ophiles and nominative determinism! Stocker and Walling – I mean what are the chances?

      Joking aside, these high profile figures are reacting to the rewilding agenda and are getting lots of publicity, rallying the troops. In an interesting day on twitter, I “met” a sheep farmer who said they would love to have Lynx on their farm, and knew many others who felt the same. So there is a constituency within sheep farming to work with, build bridges and develop a common understanding around Lynx. I probably havent helped build those bridges with this post, but that’s not really my job.

  7. Mark Fisher says:

    Thanks, Miles, for sending us all aflutter in the small group of lynx habitat modellers up here! I think I will echo the words of Denis Healy from 1978 that an attack from the NSA (Geoffrey Howe) on lynx reintroduction is “like being savaged by a dead sheep”. It is always important to hear what the opposing side of the story is, if only to see the poor research that the NSA has done, and if there are any points that do need exploration. More concerning would be if the opinions of the NSA were given some privileged position in deliberations on trial releases. I think we have seen over the trial licence for beaver on the River Otter that Natural England can balance the weight of opinions when the NFU was steadfastly against. However, while I’m relieved that the NSA does not appear to have membership of the National Species Reintroduction Forum in Scotland, there is sufficient industry interest represented on it to articulate the NSA view about lynx reintroduction, and it should be remembered that SNH crow that “involvement and approval of 26 different members of the NSRF also means that they represent an approach that has been agreed across a wide range of conservation and land use organisations”. Yes, but who in this Forum represents civil society in its aspiration for reintroductions, the NSRF being bone-headed in their original desire to see all the 7-20 (but really over 100) “illegal” beaver removed from the Tay catchment?

    I’d just like to support you in the numbers war. Sheep are destined to die in more ways than one! In France in 2013, compensation was paid for the alleged killing of 6,786 sheep by wolves. I can’t quickly find the numbers for lynx, but they are at a much lower population than wolves. This wolf kill is out of a total population in France of 9 million sheep. There is however an estimate of 100,000 sheep a year killed by wild or stray dogs in France, plus another 300,000 from other causes, these latter animals not reaching the abattoirs. If you were wondering about the fate of sheep in the UK, 14.5 million out of a total population of about 32.8 million are slaughtered each year, but it is estimated that 2.5 million sheep die, often from exposure, before they could be slaughtered for human consumption.

    On which species, I haven’t yet found any evidence to support Chris Thomas’ assertions that the Iberian lynx used to be more widespread in Europe than its Iberian distribution today, and that it was displaced by the arrival of the Eurasian lynx, nor that it appears to be the closest surviving relative of the original British lynx. There is evidence that Iberian lynx lived alongside Eurasian lynx in central and western France until c. 3000 years ago, before retreating to the Iberian Peninsula. These distributions are based on fossil bone records. However, I believe that you need an intact skull to be able to distinguish between the two lynx, and that it was some years before it was recognised that they were in fact two different species. I am not aware of any Iberian lynx bones being found in Britain, but there are finds of Eurasian lynx bones dating to as little as 1,600 ya.

    Which lynx would do better? There are far too few Iberian lynx in the wild, and so it would have to be captive bred Iberian lynx. These have to be taught to hunt rabbits to improve their chance of survival on release, and so prey selection, bound up with a habitat selection of extensive high-quality Mediterranean shrub, has a large element of learned behaviour, as well as inherited instinct. Thus it may be possible to translocate captive Iberian lynx to Britain, and somehow train them to survive in our landscapes through a mixture of prey selection, but hunting rabbits would make them high profile and very susceptible to persecution, and may not easily be accomplished by ambush in our open, shrubless landscapes. Eurasian lynx hunting a woodland species such as roe deer through ambush is a much less conspicuous activity! Whether climate change will lead to a shrubby Mediterranean landscape in Britain is also doubtful since both our farming and conservation communities hate scrubby land, while they may contemplate more woodland. It is likely that translocated wild Eurasian lynx would have a better chance of survival at present, and makes archaeozoological sense.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks, as ever, Mark, for some very valuable additional evidence, information and insight.

      I am not in the Iberian Lynx camp either, although am delighted to read good news that its population in Spain is increasing.

      I think it would be unwise to underestimate the influence of Mr Stocker and the NSA can bring to bear – there is plenty in their coffers to pay for some very high profile publicity. And though I am always happy to point out poor work such as their Lynx report, that will hold little sway when NSA make their interventions, on the NSRF or elsewhere.

      Also, I think there’s a big difference between Natural England retrospectively granting a licence for Beaver already on the Otter (in the face of a well-organised campaign), as opposed to granting licences for the release of Lynx, especially when the publicity campaign has already gone off half-cock. Anyone planning to carry out an unlicenced Lynx release in a suitable location with a friendly landowner?

  8. John Stone says:

    I suspect in our depauperate landscape Lynx would predate pheasants as much as anything. About which I would be highly delighted but the usual suspects would be frothing…..

  9. Pingback: April 2016 | Rewilding News

  10. ianhartrey says:

    Hi Miles et al,

    Sorry for slightly different topic. Would you know what impact the introduction of lynx would have on the native Scottish wildcat?

    Thanks,
    Ian

  11. ianhartrey says:

    Thanks Miles. Sounds reasonably encouraging. Would be great to have them both in the UK living side by side.

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