Northern lynx
Lynx lynx
400,000 – 11,500 Years Before Present
Paper cut-out lynx, lynx mandible excavated by John Blore from Lynx Cave and lynx DNA sequence

Another important cave in the Clwydian Range is Lynx Cave on Bryn Alyn, a little more than a stone’s throw away from where you are now. Here, in the course of a fifty-year excavation beginning in 1962, cave explorer and naturalist John Blore painstakingly unearthed the remains of reindeer, red deer, elk, lemming, aurochs, mountain hare and more – all of which tell a story of rapid climate change at the end of the last cold phase nearly 11,000 years ago. He also found forty one lynx bones – including an mandible or lower jaw, the prominent canine tooth of which immediately says ‘predator’. The sequence of archaeological layers suggests that this elegant cat with its distinctive tufty ears was stalking these hills around 3,000 years ago 

Cultures evolve diverse ways of ordering the world and naming things so as to define and remember them. Western science is founded on Linnaean classification (as set up by the Swedish botanist, zoologist and philosopher Carl Linnaeus in around 1735). This, in mammals, is largely based on what was visible in Linnaeus’ time; bones, organs, skin covering and so on. Within this particular cultural canon lynx tell a tale of scientific progression because the emergence of a whole new micro-universe of DNA-related research has, as with a number of species, challenged established positions and relationships.

By Linnaean criteria it was held that the Iberian lynx was just a subspecies of our Northern Lynx (as found by John Blore). But examination of their DNA has revealed clear genetic differences – and that they are in fact distinct species. So what the lynx is has, in the eyes of Western science, changed. This isn’t science being somehow indecisive or flawed; rather a reflection of the reality that its story is always shifting as new processes lead to discoveries that necessitate adjustments to the truth. Just as around us the entire universe is in a state of constant flux, with everything on the move (albeit at different speeds) changing its relationship to everything else.

In the context of twenty-first century society, John Blore’s lynx is an important piece of evidence within a story of conflicting interests and visions that continues to reverberate through the landscapes and culture of rural Wales.

If you’re seeking to reintroduce a species, the first stage is to demonstrate that it was once indigenous. Whilst place names can contribute evidence, specimens such as those from Lynx Cave prove incontrovertibly that this cat belongs hereis part of our native fauna. Some will say therefore that it has as much of a right to be here as we have. Farmers will by and large disagree, arguing that the lynx represents a threat to their livestock, that sheep rearing is integral not just to land management but also to language and culture – and that these must have primacy. Feelings then run high, battle lines are drawn and rival parties quickly lose sight of the things that they have in common.

Predators exert a primal influence on our emotions – probably because they are (or were) our direct competitors and sometimes hunted (and ate) us. We’re evolved to fear them. However, the lynx doesn’t pose a threat to humans (unlike cows which occasionally do kill people) and the threat to livestock is variable. They do take sheep in Norway where flocks are grazed in forests – but here they also reduce deer numbers, thereby having a beneficial impact on young trees. On the island of Mull, some of the tourist income derived from birders seeking a sighting of the barn door-sized white-tailed eagle – an awe-inspiring hunter of the skies – is diverted to farmers, compensating them for the odd lost lamb (which was probably already carrion by the time the eagle settled on it). 

It’s not difficult to see a future where in some places such currencies outstrip those of reward for straightforward food production – the farmer’s grail since the arrival of the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic. Perhaps we now face another great shift; as our hunter-gatherer forebears did seven thousand years ago.

%d bloggers like this: