David Hetherington | The Lynx and Us
David Hetherington works as the ecology advisor at the Cairngorms National Park Authority. His career goal is to help ecological restoration in the Scottish Highlands through consensus and collaboration with a range of people, including land managers, conservationists, scientists and the wider public.
In addition to his day job, through a growing network of colleagues around Europe, he has continued to develop his knowledge of the Eurasian lynx in order to better understand how the species coexists with people in the busy, intensively-used landscapes of modern Europe. Indeed, he has recently published an illustrated hardback book, ‘The Lynx and Us’, which examines the relationship between people and lynx in Europe and what this might mean for the growing national discussion about reintroduction.
“People-wildlife conflicts usually have a people-people conflict at their heart. Coexistence is about building trust between groups of people with differing cultural values and having a respectful dialogue that works towards consensus.”
Firstly, why do you work as an ecologist?
Like all ecologists, I am inspired by the natural world. I chose to work in this field because, as a Scottish ecologist, I believe my country, although rugged and beautiful, has suffered from centuries of ecological degradation. I decided to make it my life’s work to help restore and enrich Nature in Scotland.
During your career path, you have contributed strongly to nature conservation, restoring ecosystems and studying relationships between people and wildlife. In particular, you focused your attention on a specific mammal: the Eurasian lynx. Why have you decided to study this animal?
Ever since I was a very young child I have been fascinated by wild animals, especially members of the cat family. As I grew up, I learned more and more about the Eurasian lynx – how it lived in various parts of Europe and how its bones had been found in caves across Britain. Then in the 1990s, partly inspired by the recent reintroduction in Yellowstone, there was huge public interest in the idea of reintroducing wolves to the Scottish Highlands to help control a growing red deer population. There was, however, no public or even scientific discussion about reintroducing the lynx, an animal I thought would generate much less conflict with hunters and farmers.
I could see that awareness of the lynx’s history and ecology was almost zero in the UK, so I decided to do a PhD at the University of Aberdeen which examined the feasibility of reintroducing the Eurasian lynx to Scotland. I was fortunate to attract some private funding to allow me to do this.
The PhD was a great opportunity for me to learn much more about the species and to develop a very useful network of lynx biologist contacts across Europe. Ultimately I published the results of my research which showed two things: lynx were indeed native to the UK and died out more recently than was thought, with their extinction having been driven by humans rather than climate change; and modern Scotland has enough, well-connected habitat and wild prey to support a minimum viable population.
Your fascination with lynx led to you writing ‘The Lynx and Us’. What is the principal goal of this book?
Since my PhD research was published there has been a growing national discussion about reintroducing the lynx to the UK, and there has been interest among NGOs in carrying out reintroduction projects. However, I felt this discussion, largely conducted through national and social media, was becoming increasingly polarised and was actually rather poorly informed on both sides. I want the book to inform the reader about the lynx – how it lives and, crucially, how it interacts with people and our interests – and it was really important for me that the book discusses in a balanced way both the opportunities and challenges that living alongside lynx can bring.
Which was the hardest part during the drawing up of ‘The Lynx and Us’?
Well I had to work on the book in my ‘spare’ time as lynx are not part of my day job. So I had to squeeze researching and writing into evenings, weekends and holidays. It was hard work and took over three years from start to finish. I was greatly helped by a web of very knowledgeable people right across Europe though and I am very pleased with the final product.
Which people do you suggest should read this book?
Although the content of the book is heavily reliant on peer-reviewed science, I was determined the text would be non-technical and easy to read. The book is also not too wordy and is illustrated with lots of fantastic colour photos. I think anyone with an interest in the countryside, whether they are a land manager, scientist, cat geek or a nature-loving member of the public, should read the book and hopefully find it interesting and learn something new. It’s also not just for a UK audience. Although the final chapter focuses on the UK as an interesting case study of a country considering reintroduction, the book should be as relevant to readers in other countries. Not only does most of the information in the text come from a wide range of European nations, but the issues I explore around wildlife conflict and coexistence are just as relevant to other continents with similar large carnivores.
And why should they read it?
I hope the reader will develop a stronger understanding of a species that most Europeans, even those who live among them, have very little awareness of. I also hope the reader will appreciate how conflicts arise but how they can be resolved. Another reason for reading the book is to enjoy the wonderful images of French photographer Laurent Geslin. He has probably the best portfolio of wild lynx images ever taken. His beautiful images, captured by long lens and camera trap in the Swiss mountains, offer such a rare and invaluable glimpse into the world of this secretive predator.
To conclude, describe in few words how people can coexist with big predators, such as the Eurasian lynx …
People-wildlife conflicts usually have a people-people conflict at their heart. Coexistence is about building trust between groups of people with differing cultural values and having a respectful dialogue that works towards consensus. If we humans can do that, large predators have a chance.