Lynx UK Trust Announce Sheep Welfare Program

Following their application for a trial reintroduction of Eurasian lynx in the Kielder Forest region of England and Scotland, the Lynx UK Trust has outlined a sheep welfare program providing farmers with grants to boost flock health and reduce sheep predation.

Since the Lynx UK Trust began their lynx reintroduction project two years ago, the farming industry, most vocally led by the National Sheep Association (NSA), has focused on a perceived threat to sheep. The Trust have maintained the threat is minimal; individual Eurasian lynx kill sheep less than once a year across almost every country they live in, rising to two or three times a year in parts of France and Austria.

“Farmers are skeptical and I understand that; many predators cause much more damage, and science is often misrepresented to farmers and the wider general public.” comments Steve Piper, the Trust’s chief communications advisor, “But we are quoting real-world examples and the studies are consistent; lynx are ambush hunters, they need forest cover to do that, and so their diet is almost all roe deer killed in the forest.

“Of course, the sheep farming sector’s concerns have been rigorously recorded and submitted with the application. Their feedback has been critical shaping our application to ensure local farmers get a significant benefit from a lynx trial, resulting in a sheep welfare program covering health, disease and predation, funded from lynx eco-tourism.”

Grants to improve sheep welfare, health and disease control

Lynx have proven a significant draw for eco-tourism in Europe, bringing millions of pounds every year into the local economy around Harz in Germany. The Trust plan to establish a visitor centre in Kielder acting as a hub for local tourism operators as well as collecting money from tourists to help fund the trial and provide benefits to the local community.

“Lynx are difficult animals to see,” says Piper, “but that’s part of the charisma that draws people to try; the eco-tourism potential in Kielder is certainly worth millions of pounds over a five year trial. We’ll help advise interested farmers on how they can take advantage of that, but what we really want to ensure is that some of the money is going directly to helping with the biggest threats to sheep; exposure, disease and malnutrition.”

NADIS, the National Animal Disease Information Service, estimates that more than 2-6 million lamb deaths occur in the UK every year which are often avoidable 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.” says Piper, “We’ve had two years of the National Sheep Association’s 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 whilst they were busy doing that. I consider that extremely poor representation of the industry; sheep farming needs solutions to the problems it faces, not scaremongering.

“A sheep 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, maintaining fencing to reduce road kills; basics they need to do the exceptional job everyone knows British farmers are capable of. Even a fractional improvement would mean a lot more healthy sheep and a huge reduction in financial losses.”

Reducing all sheep predation by up to two-thirds

The Trust would also use the trial to study ways of tackling the other big concern in sheep farming; that of predation by any species. Monitoring the lynx population and trying to prevent predatory activity on sheep are fundamental aspects of the project design, and two key studies will survey predatory killing, maiming, and stressing of sheep leading to problems like miscarriage, then carry out detailed trials of preventative measures.

“The information we’ll collect from these studies has phenomenal potential for every sheep farmer in the UK.” explains chief scientific advisor to the Trust, Dr Paul O’Donoghue, “There are some really exciting ideas from other countries, such as guardian animals like llamas. We’ve seen these successfully used in the Scottish Highlands keeping off foxes, and in an American study they reduced sheep kills from dogs and coyotes by 66%; half of those farms saw predation stop entirely.

“Those are astounding results, I’m amazed we don’t already see them widely in use; we might be able to reduce all sheep predation by two thirds, just by providing farmers with llamas, paid for by the lynx.”

Compensation above market value

“If the lynx do kill any sheep then compensation must be paid, no question.” says Piper, “The NSA unfortunately refused an invitation to advise on a program, though individual farmers have talked to us about concerns like a lynx killing a valuable tup and how that could be valued or proven. We’re confident it can be done; satellite tracking of the lynx will certainly prove any kills, though they tend to leave carcasses very close to kill sites anyway.

“An ongoing compensation program would be prioritised from the visitor centre income, and it’s worth clarifying that Lynx populations grow very slowly, six of them cannot dramatically balloon in just five years, and the satellite tracking makes it possible to trap them all again at any point in a trial, we can always wind things back, but I really think farming is at a point where it needs to look forwards and at least consider opportunities for positive change.

“The productive, profitable and progressive farming sector envisioned by the NFU cannot be found in more subsidies or the NSA grandstanding in the farming press, but it could be found in a partnership built between farming and lynx reintroduction. Farmers may not believe us, but we want this to work for them. Everything we’ve looked at tells us that tying the allure of the lynx to local farming in ways like these can bring incredibly positive results for the farmers, their animals and the wildlife living alongside them; and that’s the lynx effect we want to see in Kielder.”

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