The National Sheep Association (NSA) has condemned what it describes as a “shocking attack” on the sector, following claims by the Lynx UK Trust that sheep farmers are neglecting their animal welfare duties.
The suggestions are contained in a Lynx UK statement, in which it says it will use money raised from tourists who visit its planned lynx release site in the Kielder Forest to fund a sheep welfare programme.
The NSA has expressed concerns that the release of wild lynx is a threat to sheep producers in the area due to likely predation.
But Lynx UK maintains it only plans to release six of the animals and says that, in countries where they do reside, individual lynx kill sheep less than once a year.
In contrast, according to data from the National Animal Disease Information Service, up to six million lamb deaths occur in the UK each year, the Trust points out, which could have been avoided with the provision of better shelter, nutrition and healthcare.
“This can only be the result of chronic under-funding and there’s little to no leadership on tackling the problem,” said Lynx UK’s chief communications adviser, Steve Piper.
“We’ve had two years of the NSA reality-defying claims that six lynx will threaten the UK’s sheep industry and food security, but they’ve had almost nothing to say on the millions of lambs lost to welfare basics.
“I consider that extremely poor representation of the industry; sheep farming needs solutions to the problems it faces, not scaremongering.”
But the NSA has hit back. “We see this as a shocking attack on the National Sheep Association when the organisation spends considerable resources supporting sheep farmers to improve the health and wellbeing of their flocks,” said a spokesman.
“Britain’s sheep farmers already operate to some of the highest welfare standards in the world and go out of their way to prevent and reduce livestock losses at every opportunity.
“Six lynx, as proposed by Lynx UK, may not devastate our industry, but they could have a devastating impact on a small number of individual farmers and, of course, once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s difficult to see it being put back in again.”
Lynx UK’s proposed scheme would involve raising money via a visitors’ centre to boost sheep welfare.
“A welfare grant program, funded by lynx eco-tourism, can help local farmers with things like building lambing shelters, effectively delivering vaccinations and other critical early-life care, and maintaining fencing to reduce road kills,” said Mr Piper.
“Even a fractional improvement would mean a lot more healthy sheep and a huge reduction in financial losses.”
With eco-tourism in Kielder potentially worth millions of pounds, Lynx UK is also proposing a compensation scheme, to pay farmers for any sheep lost to wild lynx.
But this has also been dismissed by the NSA as “complicated and controversial”.
“Justifying the reintroduction of lynx by having a compensation system in place undermines the efforts farmers go to in order to protect their flocks and maintain high welfare standards, as strived for by the farmer, required by legislation and demanded by the consumer,” the NSA said.