Two Borders sheep farmers have warned of catastrophic consequences if plans to release wild Eurasian lynx in Kielder Forest go ahead.
Ross McAulay, 27, says he will be directly affected by the plans as his family farm borders the forest in the frame to host the wildcats.
“We think it will be catastrophic for sheep farming in the Borders,” he said.
“Lynx have not been wild in the UK for over 1,300 years.
“They are about as native as the dinosaurs were, and they were hunted because they attacked livestock.”
Ross, the third generation of his family to run 550-acre Wauchope Farm, south of Bonchester Bridge, tends to a flock of more than 600 Scots mules and Cheviots alongside younger sister Jen and parents Alistair and Anne.
The Lynx Trust UK wants to release four females and two males into the wild for a five-year trial period, monitoring them by satellite collars over that time.
It says they could yield a massive boost for tourism on both sides of the border, but Ross argues there has been a lack of research to back up the plans and fears the wrong choice of woodland could encourage the wildcats to stray further afield than Kielder.
He said: “It’s the chosen habitat that’s concerning me.
“They say that lynx prefer the open woodland where there is open cover, but the Lynx Trust UK has done no studies specifically on Kielder Forest, which is a dense, man-made Sitka spruce forest.
“I would have thought their preferred habitat to be much more like the wood strips and farmland that surround Kielder Forest, which unfortunately leads them right to the sheep.
“This has the potential to be the Teviotdale sheep massacre. It’s just such an unnecessary risk to take.”
Plans for the trial release were submitted to Natural England in July, and his concerns were heightened after claims that an escaped lynx killed seven sheep in Wales in a matter of days before it was shot dead earlier this month.
“If they are introduced, I don’t know what we would do,” Ross added. “It would depend if they are going to attack and how often they are going to if so. If they do, it’s going to be unviable.
The trust has promised above-market-rate compensation for any attacks that do occur, grants for farmers to improve sheep welfare and research into reducing sheep predation by all species.
“Yes, they are offering compensation but it could be very difficult to prove it was them,” Ross added. “Pregnant ewes can lose their lambs through sheep-worrying and again this is even harder to prove.
“Hopefully, we won’t be put in the position that we have to prove anything.”
Neighbour Andrew Douglas, whose farm at Saughtree has been in his family since 1922, is also concerned about the plans.
His 4,000-acre farm, home to Cheviot sheep and Limousin cross cattle, tended by himself and four shepherds and stockmen, is separated from Kielder Forest only by a dyke.
The 68-year-old has accused the Lynx Trust UK of a lack of proper consultation with landowners on this side of the border.
“The consultation has not been good,” he said. “I have had no direct consultation from them.
“We were sent a census form to fill in, but I don’t think many people bothered as we found out that the man from the private company which sent out the survey was a director of the Lynx Trust UK. It was meant to be an independent survey, but it clearly wasn’t.”
He also says two public meetings earlier this year were badly advertised and that Paul O’Donoghue, the trust’s chief scientific adviser, showed a lack of respect for farmers’ views.
Andrew said: “He treated the audience with little respect at the Kielder meeting.
“When he was challenged by anybody with any knowledge about lynx, he refused to take questions from them.
“He was slightly better at the Newcastleton meeting, but he dictated the meetings and talked down to the audience.”
Andrew is, however, placing more faith in the Scottish Government, being consulted about the plans by Natural England.
“I personally don’t think it will happen because the Scottish Government does not have an appetite for it, and their views are going to be listened to by Natural England, but, if it does happen, we know from past experience in Norway, that they will kill sheep.
“If you climb over the dyke from me, you are in Kielder Forest.
“The trust says they will stay in Kielder Forest, but Wauchope Farm is basically land in the middle of the forest, and my land is literally just over the wall.
“How can they say that they are not going to stray?
“People who have bred sheep for years do not want them to be killed by lynx.
“Foxes can be controlled, but lynx, if they are introduced, will be protected, and farmers will be powerless.”