The reintroduction of Eurasian lynx could have a disastrous impact on the UK’s already ‘fragile’ sheep farming sector and could force some producers out of business, according to a new report by the National Sheep Association (NSA).
The NSA said some of its members had already considered quitting the industry due to the threat posed by these ‘unnecessary’ predators.
The impact on the health and welfare of sheep and their vulnerable offspring, concerns over compensation for losses and the inadequacies of suggested species mitigation measures have been highlighted in a wide-ranging document published by the NSA.
It concluded the reintroduction of lynx would be a ‘costly, complex process, with little benefit to the woodlands or ecosystem as a whole’.
The Lynx UK Trust is planning to apply for release licences in Aberdeenshire, Northumberland, Cumbria or Norfolk later this year.
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said there was a danger the reintroductions could begin soon if Natural England gave the five-year pilot the green light.
“This is not a pipe dream,” he said.
“There is a very real danger that this could come through soon.
“Sheep farming is fragile and wild lynx could be the last straw for some.”
Mr Stocker said he was also concerned for the wider implications on Britain’s landscape, adding the plans were demonstrative of ‘the wider unawareness of the essential function of sheep in the UK countryside’.
“Around 75 per cent of biodiversity in the UK has a relationship with agriculture and, as a country, we have invested heavily in agri-environment schemes to enhance this.
“Grassland environments, which are considered to be an attractive and desirable part of our countryside, are largely managed by sheep farming.
"But conditions are tough in the sheep sector, returns are low and for some farmers the release of the lynx would be the final straw. We would lose much, much more than just sheep if these businesses cease to operate.”
Sheep farmer Tomas Olsson, who travelled from Sweden for the report launch at The Farmers Club, London, gave a first-hand account of the damage the wildcats can cause, not only to sheep but to domestic pets as well.
He said: “To put lynx in this ecosystem – I can’t understand how it is going to work. It will be like a stick of dynamite with a very long fuse that is going to blow.”
Mr Olsson said 50-60 per cent of lambs were lost to lynx and the wolverine in Sweden every year.
He said mitigation measures proposed by the project’s supporters, such as installing fencing around sheep, would be completely impractical as lynx could jump fences more than 2.2 metres high.
And he said it was not just lambs at risk.
“They can take a 50 kilo animal or a ram,” added Mr Olsson.
“It is easy for those outside of farming to introduce predators without speaking to the farmers that it affects.”
Mr Olsson added the animal health effects could undermine the huge amount of effort taken on farms to ensure high welfare.
The risk of lynx killing sheep and dragging some or all body parts away from the scene also flew in the face of steps taken by farmers to ensure full movement traceability, manage disease risk and responsibly deal with fallen stock, he said.
NSA Scotland regional development officer Goerge Milne added: “No one seems to consider the stress and pain that sheep go through and also the ewe trying desperately to protect their lamb [when these attacks occur].
“If we were causing harm to lambs and sheep like that we would be prosecuted and locked up. It’s one rule for one and one rule for another.”
The NSA report also casts doubt on the cost-benefit analysis conducted by Lynx Trust UK which puts the estimated cost of compensation in England at £757.44 per year over a 25-year period.
“In practical terms this would go little way to compensate for the losses experienced," said Mr Stocker.
"Registered pedigree stock in the UK has been known to sell for several thousand pounds, which would exceed the estimated yearly compensation quota immediately.”
Sea eagles were reintroduced in Scotland in 1975 and since then have caused havoc on many farms, by horrifically maiming and killing livestock.
Sybil Macpherson, NSA Scottish Region chairman and a sheep farmer from Argyllshire, urged the licencing bodies in England and Scotland to proceed with caution.
“I plead with the powers that be for them to put more consideration into granting a licence to release the lynx than they did with the management of sea eagles,” she said.
“Sea eagles have meant the end of profitability for many sheep farmers – add lynx to the equation and the land will become an unmanaged wilderness that is no use to man or beast, domesticated or wild.”