The lynx effect could prove to be the final straw for Cumbrian sheep farmers, it is claimed.

A new report released by the National Sheep Association (NSA) argues that the consequences would be far greater than just a few sheep lost each year to the hungry lynx.

The report claims that the release of lynx into the countryside would result in sheep being killed maimed and stressed.

“Research shows that the risk of predation causes sheep to be constantly alert and on-edge, disrupting usual grazing habits, particularly when they have lambs at foot,” said the report.

Phil Stocker, NSA chief executive, said there is an assumption within the plans for a lynx release programme that its acceptable for the big cat to kill and maim sheep.

“Attacks by a dog cause a sheep to miscarry their unborn lambs, to be separated from baby lambs once they are born, and to fail to thrive due to high levels of stress. It would be the same with the lynx.”

Launching its report, The wider consequences of the introduction of Eurasian lynx to the UK, the NSA said debate has focused largely on the potential positives of such a move, but has overlooked the limited success of similar projects and underestimated levels of related compensation.

“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,” said Mr Stocker.

The association’s reasons for opposing the trial include:

  • Lynx will likely take sheep
  • Compensation will not make sheep mortalities acceptable
  • Previous reintroductions have been problematic
  • Suggested migration measures are not practical
  • Engagement with the agricultural sector has been lacking

Ennerdale sheep farmer Will Rawling said proposals to reintroduce the lynx into Cumbria was “ill-thought out” and “irresponsible”.

“I believe Ennerdale is on the list for trialling the lynx in this country, but to me it would have a major effect on not only commercial farming, but also the wider environment. It would create an imbalance,” said Mr Rawling, who runs both Herdwick and Swaledale sheep fell flocks.

“But the major, major problem is that we cannot afford to lose hefted animals. The maternal transference of hefting to a fell is vital to the next generation.”

Eddie Eastham farms just outside Carlisle and also represents upland areas in England on the NSA UK policy and technical committee.

He says: “The work NSA has done to pull together research from across Europe is fascinating, as it shows just how much of an impact lynx would have on the UK countryside. It just wouldn’t work here. Lynx need large areas of wilderness to roam across and the Lake District, like many other parts of the UK, is a managed landscape where sheep, sheep farming and other rural businesses are all essential parts of the jigsaw.

At 90-110cm in length and 60-70m in height, the Eurasian lynx is the third largest predator in Europe after the brown bear and wolf.

“To endanger any single part would compromise the whole system. The Lake District needs sheep. It doesn’t need the lynx. The lynx is shy and nocturnal, so tourists wouldn’t see it anyway. Instead the sheep would be forced out, scrub would encroach and the iconic landscape we all know and love would be lost.”

Tomas Olsson, a sheep farmer from Sweden – home to about 1,500 lynxes – told a stakeholder meeting at the Farmers Club in London last week that between 50,000 and 60,000 sheep are taken every year by the wild cat.

“In the beginning you just lose some sheep and you don’t know why, but then you find more and more dead and not even eaten,” said Mr Olsson.

“It’s the pressure of living with it. You wake up every morning, go outside and find dead sheep that you spent so much time improving through your breeding programme and caring for through lambing time – just in order to feed the lynx.”

The National Farmers Union, argued that in their view a case had not been made by Lynx UK for the reintroduction of lynx in to England.

“It is not clear from the Lynx UK case that selected English habitats are suitable for the big cat, and in fact, they seem unsuitable,” said a NFU statement.

“The issues affecting livestock farmers have not been fully considered and the proposed compensation package does not consider all the negative impacts on farming.”

Martin Holgate Friends of the Lake District president Martin Holgate said in a recent speech: “Had the landscape of 6,000 years ago come down to us we would have doubtless rejoiced in it. It would have been the British equivalent of Yellowstone, and it would still have had what some describe as the ‘charismatic megafauna ‘ – bears, wolves, lynx, wolverine, the great wild ox or aurochs, red deer, roe deer and wild boar.

“We would now be debating how to manage this wilderness as a wonderful National Park, allowing people to enter and enjoy it without disrupting its natural processes.

“But, of course, that has not happened and we inhabit a different world – and with all respect to the enthusiastic ‘re-wilders’ I do not think there is a remote possibility of re-creating that wilder Lakeland unless humanity is decimated by some global catastrophe. Indeed, I doubt if many people would want to go back to the pre-human past.”

Will Cumbria provide a suitable home?

It may be that the lovely wild cats that still roam the wild and isolated areas of Europe will not be coming our way anytime soon.

But parts of the Lake District, including Ennerdale, have not been ruled out entirely as future sites for the return of the Lynx to the UK last spotted in the wild just 1,300 years ago.

It's just that the Lynx UK Trust, a charity dedicated to reintroducing the big cat, may find that other potential sites, including neighbouring Kielder Forest, could provide a "more suitable home" for the first five-year pilot project that could see the release of three male and three female animals of breeding age from Europe.

Dr Ian Convery "It is less likely to be Cumbria at the moment, but there are sites in the county which we may explore sometime in the future," said Ian Convery, associate professor of conservation and forestry at the University of Cumbria and Lynx UK Trust.

In answer to the suggestion that the big cats would feed on the county's sheep population, Mr Convery claimed it was all a "red herring".

He said about six million sheep deaths occur in the UK as a result of poor husbandry and exposure.

"The National Sheep Association needs to get its own house in order first. Lynx are not sheep predators.

"The cats are forest dwelling animals and all the evidence from Europe suggests 0.4 sheep mortality every year, compared to 700 sheep per year being killed by dogs and nearly 2,000 lambs each year taken by foxes. We're only planning to trial three to five lynx, so any sheep mortality will be extremely low by comparison," said Mr Convery.

These sentiments were shared by David Harpley, conservation manager for the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, who said there was going to be no "significant" impact on sheep numbers. "We are only talking about trialling a few lynx. I do not know what all the fuss is about."

"Kielder is a likely site. It is big enough for lynx to live in. You could do trials in Ennerdale, but I would say it is not really big enough to anything more than a trial," he added.

David Harpley Lynx, said Mr Harpley, were shy creatures, and would not be running across fields. Mostly people will not even know they are there. The trial will involve them being radio-collared. The trust will know exactly where they are."

The charity first proposed the move in 2015 and hopes the trial will start "as soon as possible." But Mr Convery added they were not tied to any specific timescale. "We just need to follow due process."

"The NSA report raises questions regarding habitat suitability. We do have suitable areas in the UK, though of course any potential site for a trial lynx reintroduction needs to be carefully considered, including extensive habit modelling and ecosystem assessment studies prior to lynx being with ongoing monitoring of habitat suitability, and ecosystem change during the trial itself," said Mr Convery.

"We are not talking about bringing over 200 lynx from Germany. We are talking about a controlled trial. We are talking about the benefits it could bring our farmers and the local economy," said Mr Convery.

"If we reintroduce lynx it would bring £9 million a year to the local economy," he added.

In July the trust will apply for a licence for a single unfenced site in one of five locations in Cumbria, Norfolk, Northumberland, Argyll and Aberdeenshire. This could see the lynx released as soon as the autumn, though it may take longer to persuade people in the community that they do not present a threat.

There is no evidence of lynx attacking humans anywhere in the world

If some conservationists have their way, parts of the UK could be restored to a truly wild state. This "rewilding" would bring back animals and plants that have been lost, and allow them to roam freely.

Scientific studies assessing the habitat potential for lynx suggest that the UK is well suited to their requirements.

For example, it has been reported, Scotland has enough suitable habitat to support a population of at least 400 lynx. "England contains areas of extensive woodland cover with high prey population densities, and low human population densities," said Mr Convery.

"For the farmer there would be a compensation scheme in place for any livestock lost.

"There is no evidence of lynx attacking humans anywhere in the world. I see this very much as a win-win for conservation and broader rural development, and we estimate significant economic benefits for the eventual trial location," Mr Convery was quoted as saying.

Mr Convery said the reintroduction of the Eurasian lynx would prove a natural control on the nation’s overpopulation of deer. “They eat foxes and rabbits too and farmers hate foxes,” he said.

Natural England are effectively unable to comment on the trial application as they would be responsible for granting the licence.

But results of a public survey, carried out with support from the University of Cumbria, have shown overwhelming support for the scheme, with 91 per cent of the 9,000 respondents in favour and 84 per cent believing it should begin within the next 12 months.