Could successful wolf reintroduction in the US be mirrored in the UK?

Large predator reintroduction has been a great success in parts of the US. Similar projects have been under discussion in the UK for several years, so what’s stopping it from going ahead?

Wolf reintroduction
Wolf reintroduction has had a lot of success in the USA

The reintroduction of wolves in North America has received a great deal of attention, particularly the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park in 1995. This has led to speculation about whether wolves, or even lynx would be suitable for reintroduction in the UK.

Despite success in the USA, one solution does not fit all scenarios. It’s possible that predator reintroduction in the UK may help reduce the negative impact of activities such as deer grazing, but there are still challenges to overcome before making it a reality.

The purpose of predator reintroduction

Wolves were hunted to extinction in the UK by the end of the 18th century, whereas lynx have been extinct in the UK for around 1,300 years. There has been some discussion for several years about the possibility of reintroducing wolves or lynx to the UK to help manage deer populations, and restore vegetation in protected areas.

As keystone species, the impact of large predators such as wolves and lynx reaches far beyond the immediate impact on their target prey. The presence of predators encourages prey species to be more mobile, preventing overgrazing. Carcasses left behind by the predators also support other, smaller predator and scavenger communities, such as birds. This in turn leads to increased biodiversity, and improved ecosystem health.

Wolf reintroduction success in America

A recent study illustrates the wide ranging influence of both the presence and absence of wolves in the USA. When wolves were absent, long term tree recruitment was negatively impacted due to overgrazing, with implications for both plant and animal communities, compromising natural processes and ecological function.

Wolf reintroductions have been widely associated with a ‘trophic cascade’ whereby a change to an ecological relationship in one part of an ecosystem has knock on effects to many other parts of the system. This has included herbivore population management resulting in improved vegetation health, and in some cases the return of beaver populations. If these projects have been so successful in the USA, why have they not been adopted in the UK?

Challenges facing large predator reintroduction in the UK

It's widely agreed that there is an overabundance of deer in the UK, and this is currently managed by annual culling, which incidentally draws in a fair amount of tourism. In Scotland, it’s estimated that deer stalking contributes over £100 million to the economy every year. The loss of income by reintroducing large predators such as wolves or lynx would be devastating to local businesses who rely on this income.

Eurasian Lynx
Lynx reintroduction is a possible conservation strategy being considered in the UK

Wolves also face a great deal of persecution in the UK. Not only would locals be reluctant to have wolves ‘in their back yard’ so to speak, the threat to livestock should not be underestimated. There is, however, increasing support for the reintroduction of lynx, particularly to Scotland, however more research is still needed to fully understand the implications associated with the reintroduction of any large predators on conservation efforts in the UK.

Sources of the news

A shifting ecological baseline after wolf extirpation. DOI: