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The last British lynx was killed 1,300 years ago. Now the wild cat may be poised for a comeback.

KIELDER, Britain — Kielder Forest offers some of the wildest landscapes in all of Britain, a “Lord-of-the-Rings”-esque tableau of squishy green moss and soaring dark spruce where ospreys rule the skies and badgers, otters and adders skitter through the brambles below.

But it’s not wild enough for Paul O’Donoghue. “Too tame,” he scoffed.

Imagine, the conservationist suggested, a 60-pound cat – its ears tufted, its fur dappled – slinking through the undergrowth, sharpening its knifelike claws on the nearest tree and occasionally darting out to plunge its teeth into the throat of an unsuspecting deer.

“How exciting would that be?” he asked, leaving the unstated answer to hang in the lonely stillness of the summer woods.

For 1,300 years, such scenes have been absent from this island, ever since the ancestors of the modern British hunted and killed every last lynx. But now, the wildcat could be poised for a comeback.

Within months, Eurasian lynx could be roaming this land once more thanks to a plan, spearheaded by O’Donoghue, that would mark perhaps the most audacious species reintroduction experiment in the nation’s history. Like the return of the wolves to Yellowstone, success would offer a potent symbol, amid fears of an unstoppable mass extinction of species worldwide, that the tide can still be turned.

“This project offers a glimmer of hope, and it signals a huge change in our country. We’re starting to repopulate Britain with true native species,” said O’Donoghue, a 38-year-old PhD in conservation genetics whose sunburned face and unruly dark beard give him a feral look that jibes with his love of all things wild. “The lynx could become ambassadors of British conservation.”

But to others in this undulating stretch of expansive green fields, ancient stone walls and lush coniferous forests along the Scottish-English border, the symbolism counts for little. For farmers, the lynx represents little more than a pesky varmint that will feast on the animal that sustains much of the local economy: sheep.

“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘This must be the craziest idea anyone’s ever had,’ ” said Dennis Salt, a silver-haired 61-year-old who owns a 550-acre sheep farm abutting Kielder, the forest into which the lynx would be released.

And nothing he’s learned in the two years since the proposal was introduced has changed his mind. Scientists may insist that the forest-dwelling lynx are poorly suited to prey on sheep in an open field. But Salt said he doesn’t buy it.

“Sheep are extremely slow,” he said. “If a lynx has the option of going after a lamb or a deer, it will go for the easy meal. There’s no two ways about it.”

The issue has sparked passionate debate in this rural community, torn between the lure of restoring a vital element of the British countryside as it existed long before sheep held sway, and the fear that doing so could jeopardize livelihoods.

The question could soon come to a head. On Monday, O’Donoghue’s group, the Lynx UK Trust, submitted an application to Natural England, the government body that regulates species reintroductions, to release six Eurasian lynx into Kielder Forest. A decision could come within the next several months.

If the proposal is approved, four female and two male lynx would be rounded up in Sweden – where a wild population thrives – and flown to Britain. Fitted with GPS collars, their movements would be monitored for the next five years, during which time the population could naturally grow.

“We want them to breed,” O’Donoghue said. “Those babies will be proper British lynx – not lynx with a Swedish accent.”

It’s been more than a millennium since the world has known a proper British lynx. The animal was once prevalent from the northernmost tip of Scotland to the southern coast of England, but relentless hunting by chilly medieval Britons seeking to envelop themselves in the warmth of a lynx pelt doomed the species.

“We killed every last one of them, which is an embarrassing and shameful thing to do,” O’Donoghue said. “We now have a moral obligation to bring them back.”

O’Donoghue has worked on conservation efforts around the world, from the Amazon to Africa to Alaska. But bringing back the lynx in his home country has been his passion project; he dreams of the day when Kielder is known as the “Kingdom of the Lynx.”

If the plan goes ahead, it would be the highest-profile species reintroduction to date for a country that, because of its island status, has more control than most over which animals take up residence.

Britain is also a country with more ground to make up than most. The crowded island that is home to modern-day England, Scotland and Wales has lost much of its original biodiversity, with teeming forests that once dominated the landscape having long ago been converted into cities, towns or sheep-strewn grazing lands.

It’s only in recent decades that Britain has begun to reverse a biodiversity decline that was centuries in the making. Bustards were gone for 185 years, and beavers had disappeared for 400. Now they both thrive. Species of cranes, kites and eagles have been brought back from the brink. Some even advocate the return of wolves and bears, though not any time soon.

It’s a story that’s been repeated across Europe, North America and other affluent regions, said Chris Thomas, a biology professor at the University of York.

“The emphasis has shifted. Conservation has the upper hand in the wealthy parts of the world,” he said. “There’s a move toward greater acceptance of living with big, wild animals.”

The phenomenon, he said, offers some hope that species being hunted to the edge of extinction in less developed parts of the world may be spared if living standards rise and human populations stabilize.

The Eurasian lynx is not among the planet’s endangered species, having already undergone a renaissance in continental Europe. But its return to Britain, Thomas said, would nonetheless be a powerful emblem – one that also could benefit the ecosystem by helping control deer populations that have surged in the absence of predators, decimating forests in the process.

The lynx would be the top cat in the British wilderness – an apex predator that, size-wise, would far eclipse the country’s other land-based carnivores, including the badger, the Scottish wildcat and, of course, the ubiquitous fox.

The potential downsides, meanwhile, are minimal, Thomas said. A lynx may kill the occasional sheep, but nothing compared with the vast numbers lost annually to disease, malnutrition and exposure.

“The life of an upland sheep is not constant bliss,” he said. “They get stuck in bogs. They fall down gullies. All sorts of things happen.”

That view has not stopped sheep farmers from mounting a sustained campaign to block the lynx reintroduction. Their efforts have convinced the local member of Parliament, Guy Opperman, who has denounced the idea as “lunacy.”

But others living in or around Kielder have embraced the lynx – even coming to see the predator as a path to greater prosperity for an area where the economy has long been in decline and the forest, despite its beauty, has failed to attract large numbers of visitors.

At the Anglers Arms – the only pub in the small and tidy village of Kielder, which the forest encircles – proprietor Michael Brown displays a life-size cutout of the lynx to show customers that the animals aren’t quite as big and scary as some may fear.

“At first, people thought, ‘Oh, lion- or tiger-type things. They’ll be coming into the garden and killing the kids,’ ” said Brown, a trim and tattooed 44-year-old British army veteran.

Brown said opinion has grown more favorable as residents have debated, at times heatedly, the pros and cons. He’s an enthusiastic backer, believing the lynx can offer a badly needed boon to tourism.

“Things have to change, because if they don’t, this village will die,” he said.

Never mind that lynx are nocturnal and that the notoriously secretive cats may be only marginally less elusive than when they were extinct. If Britain’s lynx population is reborn here, Brown predicted confidently, the people will come.

“It’s the Loch Ness effect,” he said. “How many people have seen the monster?”

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The Washington Post’s Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

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http://www.denverpost.com/2017/07/22/british-lynx-extinct-comeback/