IT’S been more than 1,000 years since they last stalked our ancient woodlands, a stealthy predator in an age of warring kingdoms and Viking raids.

Now efforts to reintroduce the lynx to the UK for the first time since the medieval period have been given a boost after an academic study found Scotland would make a suitable habitat.

Researchers from Stirling University used state-of-the-art tools to help identify the best places to support a wild lynx population, with the windswept Kintyre peninsula coming out top.

Meanwhile, they found a simultaneous “two-site reintroduction” of 32 lynx split between Kintyre and Aberdeenshire would give the best chance of the population thriving 100 years later.

Tom Ovenden, who led the study, said it “does not recommend whether we should, or should not, reintroduce Eurasian lynx to Scotland”.

But he said: “This initial research is encouraging and suggests that Scotland is indeed ecologically suitable for the reintroduction of Eurasian lynx – but this suitability is highly dependent on where reintroduction takes place and more modelling work is required.”

The lynx is thought to have become extinct in the UK during the medieval period, around 1,300 years ago. In recent years, its potential reintroduction has been widely debated.

While supporters insist the move would help “restore the health of Scotland’s natural ecosystems”, some sheep farmers have raised concerns the predators would decimate herds.

Mr Ovenden’s study investigated the suitability of three proposed release sites: Kielder Forest in the Scottish Borders, Aberdeenshire and the Kintyre Peninsula.

Using a variety of data – including the demographic and dispersal characteristics of the lynx elsewhere in Europe – researchers concluded Kintyre would offer an 83 per cent chance of the animal population persisting in 100 years.

The modelling showed reintroducing just 10 lynx to the area could see their population expand to 150 over the next century, with the animals “occupying over half of the number of available woodland habitat patches in mainland Scotland”.

Reintroducing 32 lynx between the Kintyre Peninsula and Aberdeenshire, meanwhile, gave a 96% chance of the population persisting a century later.

In the Scottish part of the Kielder Forest, this dropped to just 21% - although as the study did not stretch into England, researchers said it “underrepresented” the true extent of this woodland.

They found the Central Belt would act as a barrier to colonisation between the Highlands and Southern Uplands, providing evidence for two distinct habitat networks.

Moves to reintroduce Lynx in the Kielder Forest as part of a five-year trial were rejected by the UK Government last year.

The group behind the bid, Lynx UK Trust, identified a further three sites earlier this year for further consultation.

These were Glen Feshie, the Kintyre peninsula and the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park region near Aberfoyle – just 30 miles north of Glasgow.

Mr Ovenden said he hoped his study would help develop further modelling around the reintroduction of predators.

He said: “Reintroducing large carnivores is often complicated and expensive, meaning that getting things right first time is extremely important. Therefore, advances in modelling approaches, as utilised during our study, are extremely valuable.

“Our research considered several proposed reintroduction sites, showing how these models can be used as a safe and relatively inexpensive way of assessing the suitability of reintroduction proposals and providing the evidence required to inform decision-making at an early stage.

“Recent advances in both ecological theory and modelling approaches have made the incorporation of individual species’ complex behaviours in novel environments more realistic.

“We applied this approach to the potential reintroduction of Eurasian lynx in Scotland – and demonstrated the power of this new, sophisticated model.

“Our research demonstrates the potential of this approach to be applied elsewhere to help improve reintroduction success in large carnivores, from the safety of a modelling environment.”

He added: “Our research informs one aspect of a complex decision-making process that must involve a wide range of stakeholders and, as a result, it does not recommend whether we should, or should not, reintroduce Eurasian lynx to Scotland.

“We have established a solid foundation upon which more modelling can now be conducted, however, further research is required to assess other important issues – such as socio-economic factors and public attitudes – to enable informed, comprehensive decision-making.

“It is our hope that this tool will not only provide evidence to guide the current debate in Scotland, but can be used more widely in discussions around large carnivore reintroductions globally.”

Jo Pike, director of public affairs at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said returning the lynx to Scotland’s landscape as a top predator could help restore the health of the country’s natural ecosystems.

She said: “Any future reintroduction would have to be carefully planned, widely consulted on, and rigorously assessed against national and international guidelines. This research is a useful contribution to the evidence base that needs to be developed over the coming years.”

The latest study – which was published in the journal Biological Conservation – was led by Mr Ovenden as part of his Masters in Environmental Forestry at Bangor University, with support from Aberdeen University.