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Wintery, wishful January

Even on the coldest, darkest day there is much to see for those who can fall into the rhythm of nature’s many moods. Winter solstice, the very words summon to my mind images of dark grey clouds laden with snow hanging over the mountains. On the lower slopes, and hugging the shores of frozen lochs, frosted shadows on birch and pine trees, some of them a great age, a hint of how this land might have looked a thousand years ago.

Forests are generally quiet now, except for the squeaking of fresh overnight snow beneath your boots. Shafts of sunlight break the day’s greyness to enliven the mountains in an exquisite late-afternoon glow, a mood that quickly changes once the sun has disappeared below the horizon. A raw, arctic veil now shrouds the landscape and the joyful sound of wintering Whooper swans, returning to their nightly roost, only serves to heighten this wilderness feeling.

The January days are short and night temperatures often plummet below zero, a time of year when tawny owls are most vocal, making their presence known with an unnerving screech punctuating the night air. The noise is a territorial claim, echoed seconds later by another owl in response. The deep stillness of the forest is home to a diverse range of species, red squirrel, red and roe deer, red fox, badger, pine marten, beaver, otter and birds; from our smallest the Goldcrest to the largest the White-tailed Eagle.

Whilst out walking the dog, in the silence of the night, I hear a distinctive blood curdling sound; a wolf howling from across the dark waters of the loch. Yet wolves were the last of Britain’s top predators to be hunted to extinction, in these very mountains 200 years ago, so was I mistaken? On a still night, with a light volume of traffic on the A9 due to Covid-19 restrictions, the sound of these enigmatic creatures travels a great distance, from the captive pack held at the Highland Wildlife Centre, to remote forests to arouse a primeval sense of past nature or perhaps the sound of nature in future?

Dare we imagine seeing them ever being reintroduced back into the wild, as a natural apex predator in Britain? Though many would like to think so, myself included, there are many hurdles to cross along the way with social, economic and commercial factors to consider first and I regret this may not be possible in my lifetime. A similar proposal has been muted, the reintroduction of a less controversial species perhaps; the Lynx a feline creature the size of a small border collie. Again this would be another natural predator, long since lost to the landscape. With current carbon capture issues topical should we be doing more to expand, enhance, recreate and restore native woodland? Yes, of course we should. However, with no natural predators, the UK’s deer population has exploded, and woodland has been overgrazed, even stripped of vegetation in some areas. Even a little overgrazing means a damaged, less abundant, less bio-diverse forest ecology. Arguably, the British deer population has become semi-domestic, “grazing like nocturnal cows”. Are we turning our woodlands into parklands for pets? The presence of a keystone species, the Lynx, like the wolf, alters the behaviour of its prey species, in this instance, primarily deer. This can have the effect of reducing overgrazing and support the establishment of new woodland and mosaic habitats, which in turn will boost biodiversity and transforms landscapes.

Eurasian Lynx used to stalk the forests of Britain before its greatest assets, a beautiful pelt, sharp claws and teeth, were also tragically its curse. By around 700AD our ancestors, either through sport, the fur trade or fear for the safety of their livestock, had hunted them to extinction. The Lynx is a beautiful creature, which has the power to inspire people who otherwise wouldn’t give conservation a second thought. Lynx hunting deer would eventually help forest vegetation to regenerate, enabling more carbon capture and by introducing enough predators the overall effect on carbon sequestration across the UK could be substantial.

Aside from the ecological interest, there are social benefits to having these big cats in the landscape. ‘Lynx-spotting’ could boost tourism enormously in some rural parts of the UK. It could become the number one wildlife tourist attraction in Britain by a ‘country mile’, similar to the release scheme in the Harz mountains of northern Germany where the animals generate an estimated £12.5m boost to the local economy.

Apex species, long ago hunted to extinction in Britain, may be re-introduced to help fill the predator vacuum they left. But has the landscape, and its occupants, changed too much to enable this key eco-system engineer to return?