THE MISSING LYNX: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals
Bloomsbury, 2019, 352 pages
Hbk £16.99 ISBN: 9781472957344
Review by Peter Taylor
This book is hard to like, but in the end, I do. It is short of illustrations and the attempts of a scholarly palaeontologist to inject humour sometimes work, sometime irritate.
I recommend it particularly for the first chapter on the past – the extinction of the global megafauna. I recall well first encountering the work of Paul S. Martin and the ‘overkill’ hypothesis and going more deeply into the major extinction event that began about 50,000 year ago. Here Barnett accurately depicts the scene when the first wave of modern humans reached Australia – 80% of the megafauna, the marsupial equivalent of the African savannah, was wiped out within 5000 years. The same efficient hunters entered North America and South America perhaps 15,000 years ago, with the same percentage results – 48 genera of mega-herbivores and their predators disappeared. “Every continent had its equivalent of the African Serengeti” including Europe. Only Africa and South Asia maintained a continuum, ostensibly because the megafauna there had plenty of time to adapt and recognise humans as predators.
The author gives a good account of the dynamic and its timing on all continents and thankfully dismisses climate change as the main cause. However, there is an irksome tendency throughout the book borne of a somewhat arrogant academic trait of either/or thinking and dismissal of un-favoured hypotheses – for example, the role of disease and the 11,800 BP ‘impact’ arguments. The former is dismissed because few disease-causing agents have the power to rage through so many genera; the latter simply because it is “not convincing to any serious person”. He doesn’t think beyond the humans and their dogs, but at the same time, once the straits of Beringia were opened to land mammals, many of North America’s main mammal fauna were replaced by migrating Eurasian species, including the bison, the wolf and the brown bear and hence quite capable of bringing with them disease organisms for which the native fauna had no immunity. And with regard to the comet-impact hypothesis, there are many serious papers rehearsing the evidence for a widespread effect.
I have no doubt, however, that human hunting was the main cause, and the author does a good job of highlighting the global scale of the extinction event and its implications, the main of which, is that no place, no ecosystem today, is close to ‘natural’. He explains the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ and just how empty our modern landscapes really are. I recall, when first researching the extinct fauna of Britain, how surprised I was to find the Atlantic oak forests had co-evolved with forest types of elephant, rhino, horses, and cattle. This conditioned my thinking about ‘rewilding’ – which the author turns to in the final chapter.
There are separate chapters considering the fate of cave hyena, lion and bear, sabre-tooth, giant elk, woolly rhino and mammoth, aurochs, and the non-extinct but absent in Britain: bison, beaver, the grey wolf and northern lynx. There is a lot of emphasis on genetics and fossil minutiae, but also entertaining discussions and phraseology (sometimes quirky and slightly patronising, such as how ‘freaky’ readers are expected to find things) on, among others, illegal beaver releases, lynx re-introductions on the continent, the origin of the European bison, and the demise of the Aurochs.
I take some issue with the final chapter – the future. Not with the sentiment expressed: “I would love you to close the book thinking about the spaces that extinction has left unfilled”, but with the interpretation of ‘rewilding’ within what he calls the three Rs, re-introduction, rewilding and resurrection (and a fourth as afterthought – remembrance). The author separates re-introduction from rewilding, which is the “next best thing” on a functional level rather than a species – for example, cattle instead of Aurochs, Konik ponies instead of Tarpan. He also invents the term ‘accidental rewilding’ giving as examples the extinction of a New Zealand island flightless wren due to the lighthouse keeper’s cat, as well as escaped camels populating parts of the Australian outback. The former especially is something we normally classify as invasive species.
He is well-read on Oostvardersplassen, the Dutch experiment with Heck cattle and the Koniks, along with red deer, but without any predators, and highlights the public relations ordeal of annual starvation. There is treatment of a little publicised Russian experiment to bring back the Pleistocene grasslands that are now barren tundra – using an assembly of wisent (European wood-bison), hardy horses, musk oxen and even Tibetan yaks, but with attendant local predators such as wolf, lynx and bear. This is somewhat over-egged as a potential remedy to stave off the risk of ‘runaway climate change’ from degraded tundra – the climate did not run away during the Holocene optimum, 8000 years ago when it was two degrees warmer in the Arctic.
However, he misunderstands rewilding, which is a wide-church that covers all of the other ‘Rs’ as ecological restoration – especially wooded landscape, and embraces human relations. Rewilding in Britain has a long history and is inclusive of re-introductions of intact species, as well as functional equivalents where the original is extinct. As with so many authors, the Dutch masters get all the attention and little of the dozens of smaller scale rewilding projects in Britain ever emerges, including the social and psychological benefits of ‘remembrance’. The discussion on rewilding and reintroductions is limited and disappointing. Perhaps a result of the author’s apparent lack of knowledge of the wide literature on rewilding and re-introductions, in contrast to the scholarly approach elsewhere in the book.
All in all, and quirkiness aside, this is an engaging read which will bring much material for thought to all conservationists and certainly also campaigners for rewilding.