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Natural England advice to the Secretary of State on a licence application by Lynx UK Trust to reintroduce six Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) to Kielder Forest as a five year trial to test the suitability of the species for a full reintroduction.
This paper sets out Natural England’s advice to Defra, with regard to the proposed trial reintroduction of Eurasian lynx, in accordance with the Letter of Direction sent from The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP to Andrew Sells, Natural England Chairman on 27 September 2017.
A technical assessment of the licence application forms the basis for our advice with respect to licensing requirements and provides a detailed analysis of the proposal against the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines. This covers the extent to which the information provided in the application is adequate and (where relevant) any further work needed.
The advice below is a summary appraisal of the proposals and focuses on the legal licensing tests and primary elements of the IUCN guidelines – planning, feasibility, impacts and risk assessment.
Policy and context of the IUCN guidelines
The reintroduction of species and recovery of those at risk of extinction is a priority action in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. Natural England is keen to highlight the value of this work, not only for the intrinsic benefits to those species, but also in restoring more naturally functioning ecosystems and creating resilient landscapes and seas which deliver multiple benefits for the wider environment and people.
Reintroductions and translocations are often the only way to further the conservation status of species where range has been lost or local populations are so low as to be unviable. This approach has been used for many years, with varying degrees of success. The IUCN introduced guidelines to help potential applicants consider all the relevant issues in designing projects so they have the best chance of success in furthering conservation, but also more critically to ensure that the welfare and interests of the animals, receiving environment and affected people are best served by the scheme.
The guidelines are clear that potential risks to existing wildlife, livelihoods and the welfare of people must be managed and mitigated. The level of effort should be proportionate to the potential impacts of the translocation. Translocations involving top-level predators such as lynx are highly contentious and therefore require careful consideration and a rigorous approach to planning, risk assessment and implementation. The guidelines state that where risk is high and/or uncertainty remains about risks and their impacts, a translocation should not proceed.
Legislation and conservation status of Eurasian lynx – deciding if translocation is an acceptable option
Eurasian lynx are listed on Appendix II of the Bern Convention. In the EU, the obligations of the Convention are met through the Habitats and Species Directive, the relevant provisions of which are implemented in UK legislation through the Habitats Regulations (2017) and the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).
Eurasian lynx are afforded ‘strict protection’ as an Annex IV European Protected Species under the Habitats and Species Directive. There is a duty under Article 22(a) of the Directive to consider the desirability of reintroducing former native species where this might contribute to their conservation. The current conservation status of Eurasian lynx in Europe is listed by the IUCN as ‘of least concern’ with a stable population.
The concept of conducting a trial reintroduction in advance of, and to inform, an application for a full reintroduction of a species which was lost entirely from the UK such a long time ago, is valid. It is the first time a large, predatory species has been proposed to be reintroduced in England and would be both novel and potentially precedent setting, both in ecological and cultural terms. Reintroductions of this species elsewhere in Europe have been successful in the past.
Feasibility - planning
The applicant, the Lynx UK Trust (LUKT), is a Community Interest Company comprising two individuals and the proposed project is entirely reliant on volunteers. Whilst they appear broadly qualified, there is no security of cover or contingency and the level of evidence provided to cover the team members’ practical experience and capability falls short of the standard expected. There is no formal partnership established with other relevant organisations, which you would typically expect to provide governance and to deliver a complex project of this nature.
In the early stages of project development, the work on Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA), stakeholder engagement and scoping ecological assessment was promising but was not all completed or followed up. No further technical reports or evidence were produced and much of the requested evidence post-application was in a narrative form or presented in a way which was difficult to evaluate or verify. For example: evidence that the project team have suitable capability and experience came in the form of photographs of the applicant and nominated vet holding wild animals and a list of projects they had previously been involved with; rather than details of previous licences held and professional qualifications. The applicant’s experience with the wildcat project in Scotland is relevant but no formal references or records of licensed activity were made available. Based on their experience of this project and associated activities, Scottish Natural Heritage raised concerns about the applicant’s capability to deliver a project of this scale and sensitivity and also issues around lack of scientific publication, which would be essential to meet the stated aims of this project.
There is no securely held budget to deliver the project as described, or fund the delivery if the volunteer team were to fail. There are no funds set aside to deliver the exit strategy, which is also therefore dependent on volunteer effort. It is not clear that the exit strategy could be executed in a timely fashion due to lack of detail around personnel availability and the equipment held. The project therefore lacks organisational resilience and there is a significant risk it would fall to the landowners and/or the relevant authorities to deliver the essential elements of an exit strategy in the worst case scenario.
Ecological feasibility and risk assessment
The site selection document outlines the broad suitability of the Kielder area for lynx. A significant omission is the absence of an ecological impact assessment. The outline scope was very comprehensive and covered all the aspects necessary to predict the likely impacts on the local environment. It was also to cover information needed to complete a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) and assessment of possible impacts on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and protected species. The applicant has, erroneously, stated that he did not consider these necessary for a trial.
Natural England has not undertaken an HRA due to the lack of an ecological impact assessment, but screening showed 23 protected sites in or adjacent to the project area, including some Special Areas of Conservation. Assessments would need to be done should this project be further considered for a licence. Without the ecological report, the application lacks assurance the potential impacts have been considered or that the area has been properly assessed as suitable for the lynx at the current time.
There are a number of environmental initiatives ongoing in the area that should have been considered and ideally been joined up into a more strategic or collaborative approach. Piecemeal and independent projects taken forward without communication risk conflict and/or missed opportunities; something that is given considerable weight in the IUCN guidelines.
Social feasibility and risk assessment
The potential socio economic benefits described as likely to arise from the proposed trial are frequently confused with those likely from a full reintroduction and there is disconnect between the Cost Benefit Analysis and the project methodology in terms of employment and investment. Consultation with national and local stakeholders was undertaken and this initial work was robust, carried out by competent consultants and reported. Further engagement with the local community, recommended in the consultants’ report, was not followed up and involvement with landowners and the local community has been a concern throughout.
Forestry Commission England, a major landowner in the proposed project trial area, was not actively engaged or contacted for basic access permission until earlier this year. Forestry Commission Scotland have not been approached and access is assumed under the Right to Roam. A large area of moorland in the trial area is owned and used by the Kennel Club and there has been no recorded contact with them. The forestry company FIM are the only substantial landowner/occupier who are supportive on paper. As it stands, the landowners are effectively passive/neutral and were only asked to give permission when this was requested by Natural England.
It is very unusual for a venture of this nature not to have involved landowners and managers in the development of the proposal or even sought their permission to use the land before making an application. They are key enablers and their support would have provided significant weight and reassurance the project would be likely to succeed.
The farming community have raised concerns both nationally, via the National Sheep Association and National Farmers Union, and locally, with key issues being predation and disturbance to stock and additional husbandry being required to mitigate these risks. The applicant has sought to address these concerns through suggested measures such as guard animals and an insurance scheme for damaged livestock. However, the farming community has not actively been involved and there is no evidence they accept the proposed measures or that they address the breadth of their concerns.
The local community are mostly employed in the farming, forestry, water and associated leisure industries and a proportion commute elsewhere to work. A local stakeholder group is referenced, but it is not clear whether this is active and representative of the community or what the terms of reference of the group are. Great emphasis has been put on the involvement and support of Kielder First School which at the time of application had less than ten pupils. A national stakeholder group is also reported to have been set up, but again its role and membership is uncertain. Elsewhere in the application it is mentioned that these groups will be set up in the project delivery phase so there is some confusion.
The applicant is not working in partnership or collaborating with other organisations sufficiently to secure local support for the project. Lack of demonstrated local buy-in also fails to show that the risk of persecution has been managed down to an acceptable level.
Release and implementation
There is insufficient information provided in the methodology for acquisition, release and monitoring of lynx. There are also concerns about the release strategy, in particular the release site location, which appears to be subject to significant public use.
It is not clear how the trial would provide scientifically robust evidence to inform a decision on a full reintroduction as there is no coherent plan in place for monitoring lynx or impacts on other species, habitats or people. Furthermore, there is no academic or other independent scientific oversight proposed to ensure objectivity and that scientific outputs are credible.
The applicant has sought to address the various issues set out in the IUCN guidelines and a substantial amount of background work has been done, as evidenced by the quantity of supplementary information provided. However, several key work areas were not continued so far as to provide the results or level of evidence required and other aspects were not followed up at all. Despite requests for further information and explanation of the need for evidence to underpin various aspects of the proposal, the applicant has not provided the necessary detail. It is inferred that these could be worked up later, but this is not an acceptable approach for a project such as this where a high degree of confidence is needed that it has been well thought out with contingency plans for the range of possible scenarios.
In general, the application fails to give confidence that the project could be completed in practical terms or that the outputs would meet the stated aims. As a result the proposal lacks the necessary depth and rigour to provide confidence it would succeed.
It is Natural England’s conclusion that the application does not meet the necessary standards set out in the IUCN guidelines. A significant amount of further work would be required to bring this application up to the standard that could be considered for a licence of this nature.