TENT is working with Scottish landowners on a pilot river catchment restoration project, seeking to create a template investment model to deliver native tree planting and peatland restoration.

We aim to work with landowners in the Scottish Highlands to design a river catchment restoration project, linking native woodland with peatland restoration in an ecosystem approach to river health. The experimental project will help create a financial and ecological blueprint for river catchment restoration, helping landowners overcome financial barriers to launching nature recovery projects.

Scotland has lost 97% native woodland cover, which has impacted the health and connectivity of our native habitats. Driven by anthropogenic warming and woodland cover loss, average river temperature is rising significantly, exposing Atlantic salmon populations to thermal stress. Over a temperature threshold of 23 degrees, salmon’s normal biological processes like reproduction, development and metabolism begin to break down. Today, Scotland is facing a real possibility of local extinction of the Atlantic salmon: catches in the Scottish Highlands reached an all-time low in 2022, representing just 75% of the five-year average. Scottish salmon were recently declared ‘Endangered’ under the IUCN Red List. With problems at sea, the scientific community is understanding the problems faced by salmon upstream, with salmon now returning on their annual migrations to habitats with diminished riparian woodland cover with an altered hydrology due to the surrounding landscape-use.

Salmon are an indicator species for the declining health of the broader freshwater ecosystems they inhabit. Moreover, they are a pillar of Highland culture and local employment, and their local extinction threatens the region’s cultural heritage and employment landscape.

Restoring woodland and peatland is a nature-based solution that benefits freshwater and terrestrial biodiversity, local people, and climate resilience. However, financial barriers often prevent many landowners from launching or permitting such projects to take place. Successful private investment, through the sale of ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and biodiversity gain, is essential to fill funding gaps associated with current governmental and philanthropic funding sources. In fact, the Global Finance Institutes estimates a finance gap of £20 billion to meet Scottish Government’s nature recovery targets in the next decade. Without proven models for private financing of nature with local community benefit and involvement built in, there is a far lower chance of meeting Scotland’s ambition.

Our project seeks to establish a novel financial mechanism for delivering scalable riparian woodland creation schemes with peatland restoration as part of a ‘river catchment restoration pilot’.

The restoration of woodland on riverbanks is a proven method to restore the ecosystems of our rivers. Trees provide critical nursery grounds for young salmon; the tree cover will shade and cool the water; while the revegetation of the riverbanks restores natural hydrological flows and stores carbon, as well as providing habitat and ecological corridors for invertebrates, birds and mammals. The naturalisation of river channels can also significantly improve the instream habitat conditions for spawning salmon, invertebrates, and wading birds.

If successful, our lighthouse project will provide an open-source blueprint for financing and execution, to be shared and adopted by landowners and managers across the Kyle of Sutherland catchment area (incorporating the Carron, Shin, Evelix, Cassley and Oykel rivers and the whole of the North Ross Deer Management Group). 

In creating a viable financial model, our project aims to demonstrate the shared benefits of nature recovery projects for those living in rural environments, in the form of improved ecosystem service provisioning, knowledge building, nature-based skills enhancement, community impact, and the generation of local employment for a just transition. 

The implementation phase will generate employment for third party contractors engaged in tree planting and peatland restoration work. In the long-term, employment will be generated through biodiversity and carbon monitoring as part of our commitment to the Woodland Carbon Code and Peatland Code standards. Through our community outreach programmes we will facilitate local ecological knowledge building and improve literacy and engagement with nature restoration projects. 

With financial support from The European Nature Trust, a new tree nursery is to be built in Ardgay to provide local provenance saplings for local tree planting projects.  Initially there will be a role for a nursery manager and as this venture grows there will be the potential to expand, employing more assistants. It will also employ local volunteers as part of the project delivery, providing meaningful engagement in nature recovery projects.

In the long-term, our project aims to improve freshwater and terrestrial biodiversity, increase carbon sequestration, restore natural hydrologic flows and boost natural flood defences, while improving key salmon habitats. Ultimately, this project will help to overcome financial barriers associated with current governmental and philanthropic financing streams, and thus scale up nature recovery for the benefit of all.

With gratitude

For the design phase of this project, TENT is supported by a development grant from the Facility for Investment Ready Nature Solutions (FIRNS) programme, run by Nature Scot and the National Heritage Lottery Fund. 

Belize is the exception to our European focus. And it’s for good reason: as the world rallies to bring forth a vision for the protection and restoration of biodiversity, a global mindset is required. Belize is creating a blueprint as a conservation leader in the Global South, with critical learnings for the international community.

A nation of just over 400,000 citizens, Belize has been protecting its ecosystems long before the UN’s commitment to protect 30% of the world’s land and sea by 2030. With 40% of Belize’s lands and 28% of its waters already under legal protection, Belize is a little-known conservation powerhouse. Today, Belize is one of the world’s last strongholds of global biodiversity, with over 500 bird species, 150 mammals, 150 amphibians and reptiles, over 550 fish and more than 5,000 plant species. The nation’s commitment to this natural wealth is historical, threading ancient Mayan cultures, through to its independence from the British in 1981. The nation’s network of NGOs and government divisions are pioneering novel approaches to conservation, underpinned by a deep cultural connection to the nature that sustains all life on our planet.

Some 61% of Belize remains forested, and 43% are carbon-rich ‘primary forests’. For comparison, in the same region as Belize, Costa Rica – a nation internationally famed for its biodiversity and conservation ethos – has 46% forest cover. El Salvador has just 2% primary forest remaining, while Honduras has 13%. Moreover, through its network of protected areas, Belize has preserved connectivity between its forest regions, whereas globally, just 10% of protected areas are connected.

Images, Kevin Quischan: left, Deep River Reserve; right, Moho Caye.

In January 2024, TENT facilitated an immersive journey for 8 of the world’s best environmental writers to the heart of Belizean conservation.

The trip began in a critical block of forest in the country’s north. Located within a 30-million-acre tropical forest block called the Selva Maya, 236,000 acres of tropical forest have recently been protected here – a deal brokered with the support of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), now known as the Belize Maya Forest (BMF). Protecting the BMF alone will avoid more than an estimated 10 million tons of CO2 equivalent. The Nature Conservancy now has an agreement with the government of Belize to develop a carbon project in the BMF that will offer carbon credits on the international carbon market to businesses and other organizations to offset their emissions, allowing the forest to be protected in perpetuity. Journalists met Michael Bowen, Belizean entrepreneur and owner of the Gallon Jug Estate and Chan Chich Lodge; conservation powerhouse, Elma Kay, now Managing Director of the Belize Maya Forest Trust, guided journalists through the forest, to understand the importance of its preservation for the country’s future. 

We ventured onto the Rio Bravo Conservation Area, managed by Programme for Belize, which in 2001, pioneered one of the earliest ‘debt-for-nature’ swaps in partnership with the Belizean government and TNC. In the surrounding areas of Blue Creek, journalists got a glimpse of the industrial agriculture that threatens the continued protection of Belize’s forests.

Onwards to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, a globally important wetland protected by the Belize Audubon Society. Guided by Amanda Acosta, Executive Director of Belize Audubon Society, journalists learned about Crooked Tree’s history and its global importance for bird migrations, water security and climate resilience.

Belize’s coastlines boast some of the most well-preserved mangrove, seagrass and coral reef ecosystems. Led by Executive Director Valdemar Andrade, Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association conducts day-and-night patrols of the largest atoll in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. In 2012, it was officially designated a Marine Reserve, and since then, TASA have been tightly regulating fishing pressure, empowering traditional fishermen as custodians of Belize’s marine biomes, while building diversified approaches to sustainable livelihoods.

Back on land, the group explored a critical thread of forest known as the Maya Forest Corridor, which connects the southern forests of the Maya Mountain Massif to those in the north, preserving connectivity with the trinational Selva Maya. We understood how organisations such as the Belize Zoo, Re:Wild, Wildlife Conservation Society and others are collaborating under a shared vision to preserve this thread of forest, saving it from agricultural clearances that are rapidly advancing in the region.

Further South at Silk Grass Farms, journalists saw a novel approach to nature preservation, ‘capitalism as if nature mattered’, as entrepreneurs Mandy Cabot and Peter Kjellerup describe it. In 2020, they endowed Silk Grass Wildlife Preserve — a 24,700-acre rainforest adjacent to Silk Grass Farm — with 30% shares of Silk Grass Farms & Enterprises, making the Preserve a key stakeholder in the performance of the farm and business and protecting the Preserve in perpetuity. 

Images: Kevin Quischan.

Down at the coastal village of Placencia, journalists spent time at Moho Caye with Lisa Carne and her team from Fragments of Hope, an organisation restoring coral reef and seabed ecosystems. An excursion with Marisa Tellez, Executive Director and co-founder of the Crocodile Research Coalition, helped journalists understand the challenges facing both the freshwater Morelet’s crocodile and the American saltwater crocodile.

At Red Bank, journalists were joined by Director of Friends for Conservation and Development, Rafael Manzanero, to understand the importance of forest health and connectivity for Belize’s most spectacular bird, the scarlet macaw. Later, the group ventured into the Toledo District to visit Jacob Marlin of the NGO BFREE, an NGO working to conserve the critically endangered Central American ‘hickatee’ river turtle. Here, heirloom cacao agroforestry is providing a sustainable crop, while maintaining forest health. 

All conservation in Belize is rooted in indigenous Mayan culture. In the Mayan Golden Landscape in the South, journalists spent time with Whitley-award winning Ya’axche Conservation Trust, learning how communities are being empowered as custodians of forests and savannas. At Payne’s Creek with TIDE, journalists understood how traditional practices of land management are helping to conserve a critical biological corridor that threads broadleaf forests and tropical savannas, out to coastal mangroves and seagrass ecosystems. 

By the end of the trip, a vision of hope for global biodiversity had formed. By visiting a network of protected areas, participating in conservation and learning first-hand from communities and NGOs, media guests left inspired to raise international awareness of the pivotal work Belize is carrying out on behalf of the planet.

With thanks to all the NGOs, businesses and communities that helped journalists experience and understand Belizean conservation.


Attending media and articles

The Guardian

Globe & Mail

SonntagsZeitung


Your chance to visit Belize and support NGOs

21st February – 1st March, 2025

Next year, in partnership with Journeys With Purpose, TENT is offering a conservation journey to discover Belize's secrets of conservation success. This journey is an immersion into the vast ecological wealth of Belize’s three biomes, where environmental leaders have long been marrying biodiversity protection with social impact, to experience the ambitious conservation projects contributing to Belize’s outstanding biodiversity.

This journey incorporates a 20% donation to four Belizean NGOs, enabling you to visit Belize consciously, with impact.

Discover more about belize

TENT is working to connect people to this wonderful country, and efforts underway to protect it. If you would like to discover more, keep an eye out for the philanthropic production, Unknown Belize, which will soon be available on streaming services internationally.
discover unknown belize

National and international criticism is growing at Switzerland’s wolf cull which started on the 1st December and which promises to be the most extreme ever implemented in Europe since the recovery of the species. Over 360 environmental and animal protection organisations including the IUCN SSC Canid Specialist Group — the global leading expert on wolves and their wild relatives, and The European Nature Trust — have so far expressed their deep concern and condemnation in an open letter to the Swiss government.

As of 5 January, 32 wolves have so far been culled under the new legislation: 22 wolves in the Valais; 8 in the Grisons; 1 in St Gallen and 1 in Ticino. It is worth remembering that the two-month cull, which began on 1 December, targets a total of 12 packs and up to 2/3 of the young in other packs, thereby reducing the Swiss wolf population by as much as 70% –below the estimate given for a minimum viable population of 20 packs in Switzerland, as IUCN scientists have determined, with the aim of further culls to maintain a low level.  

European wolf (Canis lupus) in winter birch forest, credit: Peter Cairns

The Swiss cull is set in an era of uncertainty for wolves in Europe. On 20th December, the European Commission announced intentions to downgrade the protection status of the wolf under the international Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, from an Annex IV species to an Annex V. Downgrading the species would open the door for EU range states to initiate politically-motivated culls under pressure from powerful agricultural and hunting lobbies, rather than reactively killing ‘problem wolves’. Although wolves under Annex V still need to have Favourable Conservation Status (FCS), as under Annex IV, the contentiousness of what constitutes FCS would leave ample room for Member States to set it at the lowest possible population size for political reasons. This is already the case in Sweden, where the government instructed its Environmental Protection Agency to set FCS to between 170 and 270 wolves.

The wolf is a protected species, native to Switzerland and listed as Vulnerable on the country’s Red List and as a “strictly protected fauna species” under the Bern Convention, which Switzerland has ratified. Yet national wolf protection legislation has been undermined to such an extent that a legal framework now exists for cantons to kill entire packs down to a set quota on a preventative basis, regardless of whether or not they have caused serious damage to livestock or threatened humans. With the EU’s recent announcement of downgrading the species to Annex IV, that picture is very likely to play out across other EU Member States without legal and activist intervention.

Threats to human safety were cited by President Ursula von der Leyen in the European Commission’s October announcement, which invited EU Member States to submit data on wolf populations within just 18 days. The killing of a family pony of Ursula von der Leyen by a wolf in 2022 is known to have caused considerable upset to the EU President, while the extreme brevity of the consultation period and the disregard for public opinion have led to accusations of unconstitutional behaviour.

The truth is that humans are far more likely to be injured by cows in Switzerland than they are to ever be attacked by a wolf; “Although wolves can attack humans, no fatal wolf attacks on people have been recorded in Europe in the last 40 years,” reads the European Commission’s own, December 2023 investigative report on the subject.

The recovery of wolves in Europe has been a rare conservation success story. Instrumental has been the strict legal protection of wolves throughout most their range. The combination of land abandonment, improvement of attitudes, and reduced human impacts on the landscape over the last decades of the 20th century has created the conditions for wolf recovery across Europe. Having been extirpated from most of Europe during the 18th and 19th Centuries, wolves started to recover in the 1970s and are now present in most of the EU Member States. About 20,000 wolves have been estimated in 2023 across the EU.

The wolf plays an important role in the ecosystem. Wolves manage the health and population levels of wild ungulates, reducing browsing which can significantly degrade forest ecosystems. In protecting young trees, and particularly widespread natural regeneration, wolf help build mitigation capacity against climate change.  By the same token they can also lessen damage to agricultural crops and forestry, as well as the incidence of diseases (e.g., tuberculosis, African swine fever) transmitted by wild ungulates to livestock.

With the return of the wolf, conflict has reawakened; in many Member States with wolves, such as Italy and Spain, the wolf debate has been leapt upon by politically motivated attempts to waiver environmental protections to win rural voters. In truth, conflicts arise with livestock breeders mainly in areas where the wolf has been absent for decades. In such areas – Northern Spain, Central Italy, Switzerland and South East France – the husbandry methods had adapted to a landscape devoid of large carnivores, leading to a decline in practices for managing and protecting grazing livestock in the presence of large predators.

With 60 million sheep across Europe, wolves kill just 0.065% annually. Moreover, deterrents such as electric fences and guardian dogs are proving effective across the EU; wolf predation in Switzerland was down 29% this year compared to the same time last year, despite an increase in wolf number. In many regions, wolf predation now primarily occurs in areas with minimal to no preventive measures (one study in Trento found 81% of wolf livestock predation occurred where there were no preventive measures in place), while in Switzerland the government’s own appointed monitoring organisation, FORA, found that 90% of kills involved unprotected livestock.

Public opinion has been ignored with the European Commission’s recent announcement. Over 70% of the respondents to the call for population data expressed their support for maintaining wolf protection status, compared to 29% in favour of reducing its protection status. According to a survey conducted by Europgroup for Animals, 68% of rural inhabitants in 10 EU Member States say wolves and other large carnivores should be strictly protected and 72% believe they have a right to co-exist. Another more recent survey of residents in rural communities conducted by Savanta on behalf the same organisation in 10 EU countries reported “a significant 68% of those surveyed advocating to maintain the strict protection status of large carnivores”. Even in Switzerland – where up to 70% of the wolf population is currently being culled – 79% of people do not want wolves that attack unprotected flocks to be shot, according to a 2019 survey by ProNatura.

12 packs will nevertheless be exterminated in the cantons of Grisons, St Gallen, Valais and Vaud, while juvenile wolves will be targeted in the Ticino. The Valais has applied to shoot 34 wolves from 7 packs (Nanz, Augstbord, Hérens-Mandelon, Le Fou-Isérables, Les Toules, Les Hauts-Forst, Le Chablais), some of them transboundary. Hunting aids such as camera traps, light amplifiers and infrared devices, prohibited under the Valais’ hunting law, will be permitted on “an exceptional basis”. The Grisons’ sights have been turned on 4 of its 12 packs, while St Gallen with cull the Calfeisental pack. The total tally is unlikely to be reached by the end of January when the two-month-long cull ends, but the first night of the cull claimed the life of a young wolf from the Augstbord pack.

Map showing planned wolf culls in Switzerland before January 31st, 2024.

There is limited evidence to suggest that culling is even effective at reducing livestock predation. Culling can actually increase livestock predation by disrupting naturally-functioning wolf societies, removing key individuals that transmit hunting knowledge to next generations, increasing wolf reliance on domesticated prey. Legalising and condoning the killing of protected species has also been shown to increase the risk of poaching. Already, in regions where wolves are legally protected, illegal killings are frequent. One study across Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany in Italy found that, of 212 wolf carcasses recovered between 2005 and 2021, 84.4% died because of humans: 45 died from poisoning with toxic substances, 24 from gunshot wounds, 4 struck by blunt objects, and 2 hanged. Just 10% died of natural causes.

We are currently experiencing a mass species extinction making it all the more important to implement conservation and management measures that are both coordinated and consistent. The wolf contributes to a richer animal and plant life and its return to Europe is a rare success story. In Switzerland specifically, it is a country with some of the highest percentages of threatened species in the OECD and by culling wolves, the nation is effectively delegating its responsibilities to conserve wolves and biodiversity to its neighbours.

Wolf presence in Europe isn’t just a matter of ecological importance, it is testament to our values of cohabitation and tolerance.

We do not need to kill wolves. We have options. Wolves do not.

read the open letter to swiss government

A call to action, now signed by more than 360 NGOs. 
reaD

In September, TENT in partnership with The Beaver Trust, facilitated a press trip from Edinburgh to Inverness. Journalists and influencers travelled to various sites across Scotland to see beavers first hand, and gain insights from experts involved in beaver conservation. Here’s TENT’s Outreach Manager, Kate Heightman’s report on the trip.

First, a wee bit of history of beavers in Scotland

Scotland is pioneering the recovery of beavers in Britain and is currently the sole country where beavers are free-living in the wild.  Approval is still being sought for their release in Wales, and they can only be translocated into enclosures in England.

Beavers benefit nature and people in many ways. As ‘ecosystem engineers’ their activities can create wetland habitats, improve habitat structure and variety, and enhance biodiversity. They can also alleviate flooding, improve water quality, and bring socio-economic benefits.

In May 2008, the Scottish Government gave permission to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust for a scientifically monitored, trial reintroduction of European beavers to Knapdale Forest.

They then announced in November 2016 that beavers could remain in Scotland. This decision provided for the return of a species that was part of our wildlife for thousands of years before becoming extinct here around the 16th century.

Beavers finally gained European protected species status in Scotland on 1st May 2019, with the view from the government that the species should be allowed to expand its range naturally.

Management and mitigation of beaver activity

In some places and situations, the activities of beavers can be seen to have negative impacts on other interests such as farms, gardens, or other land. Sometimes this can simply be managed to prevent damage, such as by fencing vulnerable areas or protecting individual trees. Other actions, like the removal of more mature dams, manipulating dams or undertaking lethal control, can only be carried out under licence. 

The Beaver Trust, along with Nature Scot, can provide free expert advice to help people experiencing problems, and where possible will provide measures to minimise damage through the beaver mitigation scheme, where beavers are trapped and translocated.

Beaver Trust facilities at Five Sisters Zoo, Edinburgh

This is where the Beaver Trust’s vital impact on reintroduction begins, with Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer leading the Restoration team. Beavers that have been implicated in land-use conflict are trapped and brought to Five Sisters Zoo for quarantining.  Here we heard that they undergo a series of checks for parasites and diseases, and overall health.  Once they have been through this process, they can be approved for translocation to sites where landowners are carrying out nature restoration and want to reintroduce beavers as part of this work. We were lucky enough to see a family of the endearing rodents at the facility, that have since been successfully released in Ealing.

A successful release site

Argaty Farm, where Red Kites reintroduced on the neighbouring farm first successfully bred in 1998, is now also home to red squirrels, and a family of beavers released in 2021. After a tour with landowner and beaver enthusiast, Tom Bowser, we settled quietly beside a pond where the beavers spend the day hidden in their lodge. To our delight, as dusk fell, the beavers emerged and swam around in the water trying to make out what who the strangers watching them were. Finally, we were treated to a tail splash, which the beavers use to spook or scare away potential threats and predators – we took the hint!

Long-term benefits of beavers

Beavers colonised an area around Mill Dam, above Dunkeld, about twenty years ago, so their activity here is very well established.  They have created a complex network of canals, dams and ponds, to enable them to move around safely and forage for food.  Their favourite fodder is willow, which they manage like coppice, cutting and bending stems to encourage fresh shoots. It’s easy to imagine that humans began to copy this activity to produce wood for weapons and building – an early example of biomimicry.

The wetland habitat created by the busy engineers supports many different invertebrates, amphibians and fish, that then provide food for birds and other mammals, improving biodiversity.  The beavers’ efforts also store water, lessening the impact of droughts, and slowing flows, mitigating flooding. 

Life on the water

In Kenmore, we met Duncan Pepper, a local fishing guide and beaver ambassador who is adamant that these aquatic animals can play a vital role in safeguarding the future of the Atlantic salmon in Scotland through their habitat management efforts. We set off down the river Tay on two rafts, for a beavers’ eye view of the riverbanks.  We saw how human interventions to control the river can worsen the impact of the more extreme weather we are experiencing as a result of climate change. Less than two weeks later the Tay flooded very badly after a bout of intense rain, illustrating how vulnerable the catchment now is to such events.

Watch the short film Beavers Without Borders – a TENT-funded film – to discover more about the impacts of beavers on their environment.
The vanguard of conservation

This year saw the first ever Scottish wildcats returned to the wild in the UK, with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Saving Wildcats project releasing 19 of the so-called ‘Highland Tigers’ into an area of the Cairngorms National Park. The cats are being closely monitored to track their behaviour, and much effort is being put into reducing threats from feral cats and to educate the public, so that the cats have the best chance of survival.  TENT is supporting the production of a new film to highlight the importance of reintroducing this native species.

At the same time, the Park Authority, in partnership with the Beaver Trust, has been conducting a public consultation on a proposed beaver translocation scheme in the Cairngorms Connect area – where public and private landowners collaborate to maximise the positive impact of their nature restoration work.  We got the details from Dr Sally MacKenzie and Jonathan Willet who are waiting to hear whether a release licence will be granted, and it was truly inspirational to witness the passion and commitment of all involved.

Loons at Clunes

Our trip finally led us to South Clunes farm, where beavers have been living since 2008.  Currently their area is fenced off from fields used for livestock and forage harvesting, so here the situation is more akin to that found in England, where beavers are not yet freely roaming the countryside. Fred Swift showed us around and we saw some very impressive dams and teeth marks! It was clear that this was a model that could be used by many farmers willing to allow nature to take control in the least productive areas of their holdings, and that this could lead to an increase in biodiversity that attracts people seeking a connection with wildlife too. 

South Clunes has diversified to provide accommodation and the farm-based holidays are proving popular. They also welcome many students, or ‘loons’, who come to learn about sustainable and regenerative farming practices, as well as Fred’s ‘Farm Clusters’, where a collaborative approach to livestock management and food production is being explored.  Beavers can play an important role in achieving these objectives, and positive stories from farmers who have them are essential to dispel myths among the skeptical. 

This trip was held in collaboration with Beaver Trust – an organisation TENT has been supporting for many years.


Press attendees

Michael La Page: New Scientist

Rob Edwards: The Ferret

Steve Deal: Scotland Magazine

Camilla Swift: Spectator

Annabel Lever: Nat Geo Kids

Dani Connor: Wildlife Filmmaker and YouTuber

Vedangi: Instagram influencer

Rob Howe: Nuffield Scholar, large animal veterinarian and prospective beaver ambassador.

Conservation professionals

Eva Bishop: Head of Communications, Beaver Trust

Elliot McCandless: Communications Manager, Beaver Trust

Emily Bowen: Communications Officer, Beaver Trust

Kate Heightman: Outreach Manager, The European Nature Trust

Peter Cairns: SCOTLAND: The Big Picture

The recovery of the Iberian lynx is one of the world’s greatest conservation comebacks. In October 2023, The European Nature Trust’s Jacob Dykes visited our partners at CBD-Habitat – an organisation that has played a key role in Spain’s Iberian lynx recovery.

Under an azure sky in the Toledo district, just 30-minutes trainride from Madrid, the scent of petrichor from the Mediterranean forest hits the nose. As red kites leap from oak to oak, Samuel Pla, senior technician at CBD-Habitat foundation, slows the car engine to a halt and winds down the window. He strains to hear the sharp, piercing sound of a magpie’s call – ‘it’s an alarm sound, you hear it?’ he says. ‘We’re close now to the lynx’.

For an hour this afternoon, we had been tracking wild Iberian lynx using a telemetry antenna which picks up the location and distance of radio-collared lynxes – an activity that CBD-Habitat use to monitor the growth and distribution of Spain’s recovering population. The blue flash of the magpie’s wings drops past an oak tree on the Mediterranean savanna, and for a brief moment, it cuts past the silhouette of a cat-like shape, hard to pick out as night creeps forth. ‘Tres linces!’ whispers Nuria El Khadir, director of CBD-Habitat. With all this tracking equipment, it was the humble magpie, nature’s sentry, that pointed out the lynx to us. And not just one, but three – a mother with two cubs.

Pla pulls a thermal imaging scope from his bag and hands it to me. I can just make out three surprisingly large, spotted figures with the naked eye. With the imaging scope, they illuminate into a burning white, seen tracking a big group of rabbits a few hundred meters ahead.

This would have been a very, very rare sight just 15 years ago, were it not for a monumental effort from NGO’s like CBD-Habitat to recover Spain’s lynx population from a historic low of just 94 individuals, to more than 1,600 today.

It has been a difficult history for the iconic, endemic species: in the early 20th century, lynxes were intensely persecuted for hunting sport and the trade in its exotic fur. In the 1950s, a drastic decline in the abundance of wild rabbit – lynx’s main prey – brought about by an outbreak of myxomatosis, saw lynx numbers drop intensely. By the 1990s, the rabbit disease had swept across Europe, and when a new variant of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) emerged, lynx numbers spiralled to just 94 individuals isolated in two populations in Andújar and Doñana.

Young Iberian lynx, spotted by the CBD-Habitat and TENT team.

Images courtesy of: CBD-Habitat, El Encinarejo

Seeing that the population was on the brink of collapse in 2002, the European Commission’s LIFE programme brought together more than 20 organisations, including CBD-Habitat, to step in and revive the population. ‘The dangerous situation really brought groups together,’ says Carmen Rueda, technician at CBD-Habitat. The strategy was relatively simple: establish a network of breeding centres; create a genetically-resilient stock population; and release them into the wild at carefully selected sites across their historic range. Since those early days, those ‘seed’ populations have successfully been established, growing the number of wild Iberian lynx from a historic low of below 100 individuals to more than 1,600 today, now spread across eight distinct populations. It would have been the first felid species to go extinct since the sabre-toothed tiger. 'Thanks to successive LIFE projects of the European Union, together with other private and public funds, we have been able to save this feline from extinction, together with administrations, other NGOs and organisations,' says Rueda.

Today, the CBD-Habitat team are monitoring many of the reintroduced populations, tracking their movement and behaviour with camera trapping and radio collars, and monitoring their breeding cycles. Just last year alone, more than 400 cubs were born – a promising stat for the future.

In 2023 alone, CBD-Habitat have made significant achievements:

150 lynx monitored, 61 of them radio collared

30 territorial females monitored, minimum of 72 cubs detected

39 roads evaluated for lynx safety

More than 200 rabbits relocated from dangerous roadside areas

More than 500 samples of Iberian lynx genetic data for genetic analysis

The following morning, Pla and I are back out on the ranch at El Castañar in Toledo. The air is still and pink clouds drift idly above the Dehesa, a traditional agricultural landscape highly suited to the lynx’s hunting habits. It takes just 10 minutes of driving before we see a younger lynx with the white tale of a rabbit dangling from its mouth. ‘My gosh, we are so lucky,’ says Pla. ‘The owners of this place were some of the early adopters of lynx conservation work. You can really feel it in the rabbit and lynx comeback here.’

In many areas of rural Spain, the population recovery has been helped by a willingness of local communities to welcome back the carnivore. Fortunately, ‘the lynx is not a very conflictive animal,’ says Carmen. ‘It’s handsome, people like watching the animal and ecologically speaking, it is beneficial for hunting groups.’ Lynx, by controlling the amount of prey available, reduce the numbers of other predators lower down in the food chain, such as foxes and mongoose. In turn, the numbers of game species begin to rise, benefitting hunting groups. The support of landowners is key to the project’s success; since the return of the lynx, many have even created ecotourism businesses that enrich income from traditional olive, cereal and livestock farming, (see El Encinarejo, and Quintos de Luciañez).

However, there is significant work to be done. In 2020, the LIFE LynxConnect project was launched– an effort to link up these new populations by creating at least 10 wildlife corridors, which scientists call ‘stepping stones’ – passageways of plentiful habitat encouraging isolated lynx populations to disperse and connect with one another. One of the main challenges is ensuring there are enough rabbits in these areas. ‘Without rabbits, you don’t have lynx,’ says Pla. In corridor areas, the CBD-Habitat team are working with landowners to improve the rabbit populations, enriching vegetation, constructing artificial warrens, and translocating them from other rabbit-rich regions.

The Iberian lynx current distribution, according to the Lynx LIFEConnect project. Populations in Andújar and Doñana were the original 'remnant' populations in the early 2000's, from which new populations have been created during the LIFE Iberlince project.

But amid climate change, the rabbit population is declining in many key areas, such as Andújar. This year, a prolonged period of drought created unpredictable rainfall patterns, drying vegetation and impacting the rabbit’s ability to breed. In turn, the breeding patterns of lynx in key regions is becoming more unpredictable. This makes rabbit monitoring and population improvement works from groups like CBD-Habitat that much more important to growing and maintaining the overall range of the lynx.

The Iberian lynx is slowly glimpsing salvation. However, there is still much work to be done. The reintroduction populations have been a turning point, but there are still many areas where the Iberian lynx was present in the past and is now extinct. Encouraging the natural expansion of populations and settlement in new areas, as well as creating new reintroduction nuclei, are key to guaranteeing a Favorable Conservation Status for the species. In addition, we must not forget the mother areas. Doñana and the Sierra de Andújar-Cardeña are sanctuaries for the lynx. They are internationally emblematic regions for their rich and unique biodiversity; places from which the lynx never disappeared, a land where they belong.

Behind the scenes glimpse of CBD-Habitat's conservation work in action.

support lynx comeback

The European Nature Trust is a supporter and funder of lynx conservation in Spain. If you would like to help CBD-Habitat continue conservation work, you can donate directly via their website, or spread the word by sharing this article.
support lynx

Through our new partnership with Dell' Ugo Foods, it's as easy as that to make an impact.

We’re proud to announce our partnership with Dell' Ugo foods. They produce some of the most delicious, authentic ready-made pasta dishes, which you can pick up in Waitrose, Ocado, Booths and other local distributors. 

Look out for the packs containing the special bear stickers – for each one purchased, Dell' Ugo donate a significant amount to The European Nature Trust to fund and support grassroots efforts to protect Italy’s Critically Endangered Marsican brown bear, led by local NGO, Salviamo l’Orso.

At TENT, we support efforts to protect and restore nature. But we can’t do it alone: that’s why we choose to partner with conscious businesses that recognise their ability to support nature recovery. 

Take action

If you want to support bear conservation, you can pick up a special pack of Dell' Ugo pasta at your local Waitrose, or even order some via the Dell Ugo website. Just look out for the special sticker below!

Each pack helps to generate impact for bear conservation. You can even donate to the initiative directly on the Dell' Ugo website.


CROMER CRAB AND CRAYFISH RAVIOLO

Indulgent British Cromer Crab Parcels with lemon, coriander and a hint of warming chilli.

£5.85 – each pack sold contains a donation for Marsican bear conservation

PORCINI MUSHROOM AND BLACK SUMMER TRUFFLE RAVIOLO

Distinctive porcini mushrooms with indulgent black summer truffle and mascarpone with a delicate hint of thyme wrapped in British fresh free range egg pasta parcels.

£5.85 – each pack sold contains a donation for Marsican bear conservation


The Dell' Ugo way

As a 4th generation, family-run business rooted in Italian heritage, Dell' Ugo are tremendously passionate about sustainability practices. ‘We care deeply about Italy, its culture, and its environment, all of which are intrinsically linked to nature,’ writes Dell' Ugo’s own head of CSR and Sustainability, Freddie Ugo. That’s why we’re creating a platform for bear conservation through the sale of pasta products; many people are unaware that the Italian bear even exists, let alone that it is a species perilously close to the edge. Through the product range, we’ll create awareness of the bear, while generating funds for prolonged conservation efforts into the future.


Bears need our support

There are only 60 Marsican brown bears left in Italy. They are officially classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “Critically Endangered”. The Marsican brown bear’s survival is pivotal for the long-term viability of the Apennine Mountains’ ecosystems. While originally inhabiting lowland areas as well, pressure from humans over the past 2 centuries has led to their confinement to higher mountainous regions within the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park.

But the bears can have a bright future, if we only give them the space and support they need.

The Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park has potentially reached 'carrying capacity', making it difficult for the bear population to grow. As such, the bears' future depends on them being able to move to new protected areas (left) and expand their territories.

Our partners at Salviamo l'Orso are carrying out critical 'on the ground' conservartion work. They have key focus areas, mitigating threats to bears like traffic collisions, building 'bear smart communities' that coexist alongside the species, and supporting the restoration of key bear habitats.

2023 has been busy for bear conservation!

Salviamo l'Orso have so far made the following achievements, just in 2023 alone, with TENT's support:

6km

of barbed wire removed

67

guardian dogs were vaccinated to prevent the spread of diseases to wolves and bears

160

reflectors were installed on dangerous roads

50

electric fences were installed to prevent bear damage

18

bear proof bins have been provided by SLO to local municipalities

200

fruit trees were pruned to improve fruit for bears

4km

of bear fencing was installed on National Road 17 – one of the most dangerous roads for bear collision

10

public events have been delivered to support coexistence

70

children have enjoyed conservation activities with SLO

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