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Bringing native lynx and wolves back to Ireland could help curb damaging deer, research finds

Invasive species, such as sika deer, are “evolutionary naive” to native predators.

The native lynx could help keep invasive sika deer under control.
The native lynx could help keep invasive sika deer under control.
Image: Glen Hooper

FRESH RESEARCH HAS added further weight to the theory that restoring native predator populations could help keep problematic invasive species in check.

New research published today finds that restoring predators native to Ireland, specifically lynx and wolves, could help manage burgeoning populations of sika deer – which is one of the most damaging invasive species to the environment in Europe.

Invasive species are the main cause of extinction in the last century and pose one of the greatest threats to biodiversity around the world. Experts calculate this cost to amount to at least $162 billion each year.

Native predators are essential to keep an ecosystem functioning but they are in decline across the world. A lack of native predators enables invasive species to proliferate, putting native populations under peril.

Sika deer are considered a pest as they graze on crops and strip the bark from trees, causing them to die. They are also thought to contribute to the spread of diseases such as bovine and avian TB.

The new research provides strong evidence that lynx and wolves could impact sika deer populations in Ireland and Britain.

The deer and other invasive species have an “evolutionary naivety” to native predators and also lack places to hide in the habitat.

The new study says these twin factors could underpin the abilities of native predators to provide effective control of invasive species.

The Journal examined the potential environmental (and economic) benefits of reintroducing wolves as part of its ‘Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future’ podcast series in 2019.

Dr Joshua Twining from Queen’s University Belfast and Cornell University, who led the research, said: “In a modern world that is daunted by environmental crisis and ecological collapse, it is more important than ever to realise the potential of restoring native predators to ecosystems from which they have been previously lost.

This applies globally but is especially applicable in Britain and Ireland where we have persecuted all our large-bodied predators into extinction with no natural means of recovery.

The study also shows how the lynx and wolf recovery in Europe could limit raccoon dogs below the threshold for rabies persistence, which remains a huge threat to human and animal health.

The researchers previously found that the recovery of the native pine marten in Ireland and the UK has resulted in landscape-scale declines of the invasive grey squirrel.

wolf-2 The study shows that wolf recovery in Europe “could limit raccoon dogs below the threshold for rabies persistence. Source: Milo Weiler

The new paper – which is published in the journal Global Change Biology – also ventures stateside where it examines how the predator Florida panther could contribute to control of invasive feral pigs.

Feral pigs are widely considered to be the most destructive invasive species in the United States, causing damage to the ecosystem, wrecking crops and hunting animals like birds and amphibians to near extinction.

The study demonstrates that the Florida panther, which was one of the first species added to the US endangered species list in 1973, could effectively provide an efficient, and cost-effective solution to limit the further spread of feral pigs.

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“Our work demonstrates the plausibility of a nature-based approach to the control of certain invasive species around the world.

“Native predator restoration can provide effective solutions to some of the most damaging of invasive species and thus buffer our natural systems against some of the worst of human impacts,” Dr Twining concludes.

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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