Any moves to reintroduce lynx into a prime sheep-rearing area like the Borders would be a nightmare with catastrophic results.
That was the view this week of Rob Livesey, who runs 1,100 sheep on his farm near Melrose and is a current vice-president of the National Farmers Union Scotland, as well as having been its national livestock committee chairman for four years.
He was adding his comments to those already issued by the NFU in response to proposals by the Lynx UK Trust to release up to six Eurasian lynx onto each of a number of privately owned, unfenced estates, including one in Aberdeenshire and another in Northumberland.
The Eurasian lynx is the largest lynx species, which preys on deer as well as rabbit and hare.
But Steve Piper, of the Lynx UK Trust, who says southern Scotland could be an area suitable for the apex predators as well, believes the economic potential from increased tourism as a result could be substantial. “We’re looking mostly at the area from Galloway through to Kielder, so they may touch on the Borders area a little,” he told us.
On fears from sheep farmers of the possible impact lynx would have on livestock, he added: “Lynx are forest animals and rolling hills are pretty much the last place they want to be. This is why sheep predation is extremely low across their range; for the most part the two animals exist in very different habitats.
“So whilst we’d certainly consider the forested areas if they had a good population of deer like roe, you wouldn’t see lynx roaming across wide open sheep moors; this behaviour is consistent everywhere Eurasian lynx live.”
Mr Piper added that if there were large enough forestry commission plantations in the Borders, or there were corridor-like connections to other patches of forestry, then there would be plenty of potential for lynx being re-established in the southern Borders between Ettrick and Kielder Forests.
A survey of UK public opinion found that 91 percent of more than 9,000 people who took part were in favour of a trial reintroduction of lynx.
The trust intends to lodge a formal application with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) for a license to release the animals, which have been missing from Scottish forests since medieval times.
And Mr Piper added: “There is huge potential for eco-tourism money coming into rural economies; if sea eagles can make Mull £5m then lynx potential is considerable,” he added.
But NFU Scotland has accused the Lynx UK Trust of focussing on courting public and media attention.
“In doing so it has failed to abide by many of the basic principles that govern species reintroduction. It has neither properly consulted land managers nor credibly explained how it plans to manage the risks,” said NFU Scotland’s Deputy Director of Policy, Andrew Bauer.
And Mr Livesey says the impact of lynx in a sheep-intensive area like the Borders could be catastrophic.
“Look at the impact from reintroducing sea eagles in the Highlands – people are regularly losing lambs as a result, yet we were assured this would not happen. Now here comes a scheme in which another animal with no natural predator, and which would probably have protected status, would be reintroduced into landscapes vastly different from those when lynx last roamed free.
“Sheep farmers in the Borders face enough predation by foxes and badgers, so to introduce lynx could have a catastrophic impact and even if you were allowed to control their numbers, it would be extremely difficult given these are animals of the forests and very elusive. The whole thing could be an absolute nightmare for the Borders – the area which produces the highest quality sheep in the UK.
“This is a romantic idea but an ill-considered one.”
George Milne, Scottish Region Development Officer for the National Sheep Association, agrees and says in the farmed environment that has developed during the 1,300 years since lynx were present in Britain, it would be impossible to limit the large cats to preying on deer and not sheep.
“This would be particularly true in the Borders, where many of our sheep farms are found,” he added.
“Reintroduction of such a powerful predator will threaten livelihoods and businesses within the farming industry, as well as disrupting valuable and finely-balanced ecosystems, and putting animal welfare in jeopardy.”