Farming groups are seeking urgent reassurance from Natural England that any formal application to re-introduce Eurasian lynx to the countryside will trigger a full, independent impact study and consultation.
A group of campaigners known as the Lynx UK Trust announced last month that it has identified Kielder Forest spanning Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, as their preferred site for a trial re-introduction of the species to take place.
But while the Trust believes that the animals can offer “a pivotal role in the ecosystem” by helping to control an unchecked deer population from overgrazing the country’s forests, farming organisations say their members are concerned the species would prey on sheep and damage existing biodiversity.
With the Trust yet to submit an application for a re-introduction trial to the licencing authorities in England and Scotland - Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage - farming organisations have come together to call for Natural England to clarify how it will react should this happen.
Adam Bedford, the York-based regional director of the National Farmers’ Union for Yorkshire and the North East, said: “A thorough, independent evaluation of any proposals put forward is what farmers in the local area expect.
“This is an area almost wholly dependent on sheep farming and times are tough. Any unnecessary additional pressure on these fragile businesses is simply unacceptable and the government must respond accordingly.
“Scottish farmers already have the commitment of their government to carry out a full consultation in the event of a formal application by Lynx UK. We now need Natural England to follow suit in England.
“The truth is we don’t know how these animals would behave in an environment that is very different to the last time they lived in the wild in England. What is clear is that they would prey on sheep and in particular the lambs so readily available on local farms.
“Surely our efforts and finances would be better focused on retaining current biodiversity.”
And Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said: “Sheep are an essential part of the economic, environmental and societal jigsaw in rural areas. Put this one vital piece at risk and the whole structure is threatened, biodiversity is reduced, cultural and heritage is lost, and the rural landscape changes.
“We are concerned that lynx will negatively impact sheep farming businesses without being guaranteed to bring any gains in terms of environment or tourism.
“Lynx are not considered to be an at risk species on a global scale and we would do better to concentrate on the iconic landscapes and incredible biodiversity that we already have in the UK.”
Natural England declined to comment but Country Week understands that any application for a trial re-introduction of any species, including lynx, would by law require firm scrutiny from the government advisory body before any decision could be reached.
ZOO ESCAPE HEIGHTENS FEARS
The risk posed to livestock by lynx was emphasised when one of the animals escaped recently from Plymouth Zoo, the National Sheep Association’s chief executive said.
“It killed a number of lambs in a short amount of time and was recaptured with the knowledge it would return to the site of its last kill,” Phil Stocker said. “Official guidance from the police was for the public to stay away from the animal as it could be dangerous if startled or cornered.”
The Lynx UK Trust believes Kielder Forest is a safe re-introduction site due in part to its low population density.