By all means read this post, but insofar as it is critical of Andrew Venables, it is wrong. Please read this update which sets the record straight. It is in fact rather a good example of rushing to judgement without appreciating the full facts. I am leaving it up here, partly as an example of how dangerous it is to leap to conclusions on the basis of inaccurate evidence, and partly because despite the inaccuracies about the shooting, there is still a good case for lynxes to be reintroduced into the British countryside.
What a sad tale it is of Lillith the baby [“juvenile” would be a more accurate word] Eurasian lynx, shot and killed in an Aberystwyth caravan park last Thursday. Ceredigion Council, who took the decision to kill the escaped animal on the grounds of “public safety,” had a good chance to capture her alive when she was spotted sleeping under an unoccupied caravan. According to Lillith’s owner Tracy Tweedy she could have been caught there and then, had it not been for a bungling council official who seems to have been over-concerned to follow the somewhat impractical official protocol for dealing with a sleeping lynx:
“The caravan was boarded in on three sides with decking and all we had to do was sling a net across the back and we would have had her trapped. Unfortunately, one of the officials insisted that he needed to photograph her and make a positive ID before we were allowed close. He slipped and fell going up the bank which startled her causing her to run past him and off across the fields.”
The Council then gave the job to “a team of local marksmen.” It cannot be often that these Cambrian Rambos are called upon to do anything important, and Andrew Venables, the owner of a local gun training school WMS Firearms Training was quick to defend the decision to slay Lillith, and was quoted [inaccurately] as saying:
“The animal was found in a caravan park, where tourism is vital, and the possibility of a darting response was never explored. It was further complicated by the dark, since it was a night-time operation.”
Were there really any mid-November tourists cowering in their caravans, terrified to come out and spend their money because of the infinitesimal risk that they might be attacked by a lynx? My guess is that a west Wales campsite in November is about as dead and empty as a holiday resort can be. [Update: Yes, there were people there]
Anyway, I think “a darting response” is the bureaucratic term for shooting a lynx with a tranquillising dart in order to capture rather than kill it, and if Mr Venables is right then it is a great shame that that “response” was not explored. [In fact there was a great deal of consideration given to tranquillising Lillith but for sound reasons it was decided that it could not be done safely] It sounds as though these mysterious men – I’m going to assume they were all men – who happily volunteer to kill a beautiful young lynx rather than try to creep close enough to tranquillise it, must know instinctively that they lack either the necessary skill or courage. They may think of themselves as the heirs to Owain Glyndwr but they’re probably just fat men with ear protectors skulking behind caravans.
I was asked yesterday whether any criminal offence was committed by the Council. Sadly, the answer is almost certainly not. A captive lynx is a “protected animal” within the Animal Welfare Act 2006 but it probably loses that status once it has escaped. Even if it does not, the Act only protects animals from “unnecessary suffering.” Despite Mr Venables’s gung-ho assertion that no consideration was given to tranquillising it, a prosecution for causing “unnecessary” suffering is surely doomed to fail. In deciding whether an animal’s suffering is “unnecessary” a court is required to take into account whether the suffering was for a legitimate purpose such as “protecting a person, property or another animal.” What is more, S.4 (4) provides:
“Nothing in this section applies to the destruction of an animal in an appropriate and humane manner.”
The ghastly word “appropriate” could have been designed to protect councillors worried about tourism or sheep deaths. According to a Council spokesman, demonstrating an attitude as cowardly as it was vainglorious, the risk to the public had “increased from moderate to severe” after the lynx strayed into the caravan park and they felt they “had to act decisively.” It is also true that there had been complaints from local farmers that their sheep had been attacked, although it is unclear whether this was by Lillith or by dogs.
Once it had escaped, the lynx remained legally the property of its owner, the Borth Wild Animal Kingdom (“The Little Zoo with the Big Heart”), run by Mr and Mrs Tweedy. Mr Tweedy, described himself as “devastated emotionally and physically” by the killing. He had spent three weeks trying to capture Lillith, even going so far as to employ a drone with thermal imaging equipment, and had hoped that she could have been tranquillised. In theory, anyone killing somebody else’s animal can be guilty of criminal damage. In practice, the Council would have little difficulty in demonstrating a “lawful authority” for the shooting. Under S.5 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 merely by showing that it “honestly believed” the lynx had to be destroyed “to protect property belonging to … another.” Given that local sheep farmers had complained – possibly mistakenly – that Lillith had killed their sheep, there is no way that the charge would stick. Subsection (3) is clear: “it is immaterial whether a belief is justified or not if it is honestly held.”
Just because killing Lillith was not criminal does not mean that it was the right thing to do. The lynx is native to Wales, although Owain Glyndwr would never have seen one because it was hunted to extinction by Mr Venables’s dark age ancestors. Lynxes remain relatively widely distributed in Asia and isolated populations totalling about 10,000 remain in Central and Eastern Europe. It may also still live in the Pyrenees, and it has been successfully reintroduced to Switzerland and parts of Eastern France, where it is thought that around 500 now live in the Vosges and the Jura.
There have been no reports of campers or caravanners being attacked in the areas where lynxes have been reintroduced, and while there have certainly been attacks on sheep, farmers have adapted and been able to carry on without any insuperable problems. All the evidence is that most lynxes prefer venison above all other food. One Swiss study found that each lynx kills on average just one sheep every two and a half years, and it is has even been plausibly suggested that by killing the occasional fox, now legally protected from hunting, lynxes could actually provide sheep with some protection. Fortunately, lynxes also sometimes eat badgers and if they could be persuaded to kill a few of the over-protected and often tubercular badgers that really do cause financial damage to farmers, that could be another bonus to agriculture, albeit probably a rather modest one.
Rather than calling out the Ceredigion musketry, the successful reintroductions in France and Switzerland ought to have prompted the Council into an entirely different response. They should have looked to acquire some more lynxes and released them as well. Plans are well under way to re-introduce lynxes into Northumberland, Norfolk and the Lake District, and the wild hills of the Ystwyth Forest would also provide a perfect habitat to re-establish a breeding population. Far from frightening away tourists it is confidently expected that the small chance of a sighting of one of these magnificent but shy animals in its natural habitat will attract tourists rather than frighten them away.
It may be true, as the Lynx Trust rather sniffily says, that an escaped lynx is likely to behave differently from a wild born lynx; but that is not to say that Lillith could not have adapted perfectly well to freedom, if she had been given the chance. Escaped mink rapidly established themselves in the wild, as (more happily) have the escaped Devon beavers now breeding, rather confusingly, in the River Otter. Indeed one delicacy that lynxes would certainly enjoy would be the non-native Muntjac deer, a species that has spread over most of the south of England and Wales after a pair escaped from the Woburn estate in the early 20th century.
When wolves were reintroduced into the Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, 70 years after being hunted to local extinction, the effects were dramatic: elks once again had a predator, so their numbers fell, which led to an increase in willow growth, which led to more food for beavers, which led to more dams which not only reduced flash floods but also produced shady pools for fish. The reintroduction of a key predator produced a “cascade” of benefits for the whole ecosystem.
There is every reason to think that a few hundred lynxes roaming the Welsh countryside would produce similar ecological benefits. We are willing to accept the risk that lethal weapons – like the “338 Lapua Magnum Steel Core Cyclone rifle” a long range rifle on the use of which Mr Venables provides tuition – might fall into the wrong hands [extremely unlikely given the police approved security in place]. We should be prepared to accept the far lower risk, posed by the reintroduction of the Eurasian lynx.