By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 11:53pm BST 14/04/2007
They last stalked through Britain's forests more than 1,000 years ago. Now moves are afoot to bring back the Eurasian lynx as the country's top predator.
Ecologists are calling for the beasts to be released into the wild after research which found that Britain could support up to 500 of the animals.
That would provide one of the largest populations in Europe.
Campaigners claim that the cats, which mainly hunt small deer, would provide a valuable boost to tourism while also helping to contain deer numbers and so protect woodland areas, which can be devastated by grazing herds.
The lynx is the latest in a series of animal reintroductions to be proposed, following other long-extinct species such as wolves and beavers.
Under European legislation, member states are obliged to consider reintroducing species where they have been made extinct by human activity and whose survival is considered critical.
Lynx numbers have dwindled to fewer than 50,000 worldwide and the cat is listed on the World Conservation Union's red list of threatened species.
"There is plenty of prey here in the UK to support a thriving population," said David Hetherington, an ecologist at Aberdeen University who has been studying the feasibility of reintroducing lynx. "There is the potential to create the fourth largest population of lynx in Europe.
"They are shy and secretive creatures, but this makes them extremely charismatic. The benefits in terms of tourism would be great. Those countries that have already reintroduced lynx have seen them become wildlife icons."
Until recently, the lynx was believed to have died out naturally in Britain as a result of the changing climate, but it is now thought to have been wiped out by deforestation by people in about 700AD.
Bones discovered in the Yorkshire Dales revealed that the animals had been present in Britain during the sixth century.
Populations of Eurasian lynx were confined to pockets of Siberia and eastern Europe until a number of European countries embarked on reintroduction programmes. Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Slovakia and France now all have populations of lynx. Spain has its own threatened population of the distinctly separate Iberian lynx.
Mr Hetherington believes that reintroductions could take place in Britain, with forests in the Highlands, Southern Uplands of Scotland and Kielder in Northumberland supporting populations.
He said that about 30 wild lynx captured and imported from mainland Europe would be enough to found a successful population.
He said: "Ethically, since humans were responsible for killing them off in Britain in the first place, there is also a compelling argument to reintroduce this beautiful and graceful creature."
Conservationists also believe that reintroducing lynx would -provide a natural way of -controlling deer.
About 160,000 deer are culled every year in an attempt to reduce the damage they cause to crops and woodland, while thousands of pounds are also spent on fencing to keep the animals out.
Adam Powell, a field project manager at the conservation group Trees for Life, said: "Reintroducing the lynx would have a balancing effect on the environment.
"Top predators provide a natural control in deer numbers. It is not just how many they eat but also the effect they have on the movement of the deer and this provides an opportunity for the natural regeneration of woodland without the deer."
But proposals to reintroduce the lynx have also met with opposition from landowners and farmers who fear that the predators could kill livestock.
In Switzerland last year, 15 sheep were killed by lynx, but the numbers of livestock kills have been reduced through careful management of the big cats.
Plans to reintroduce other animals have also met with strong opposition, with fears that large carnivores such as wolves would present a risk to farm animals and to people.
In 2005, ministers rejected proposals to reintroduce beavers, which died out in Britain 400 years ago, amid fears that they could damage woodland habitats by flooding rivers.
A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance warned that reintroducing lynx could harm other threatened native species.
He said: "We feel it is more important to concentrate on species that are currently under threat in the Highlands and Southern Uplands, most specifically the wildcat and ground-nesting birds such as the capercaillie."
A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said there were currently no plans to issue a licence to allow the release of lynx into the wild.