PROPOSALS to re-introduce large predator species such as lynx or wolves to the Scottish countryside continue to be of huge concern to farmers and crofters – and lessons learned from mainland Europe have done nothing to calm their nerves.

On a recent study trip to Norway, an NFU Scotland delegation heard that, in 2016, Norwegian authorities paid out compensation on nearly 20,000 sheep lost to predators. Of the total amount of sheep killed in Norway, wolverine accounted for around 34% of losses, with lynx, bear and wolf accounting for 21%, 15% and 9% respectively.

Press coverage of the proposals to reintroduce lynx to Kielder Forest on the border between Scotland and England recently prompted a welcome commitment from Scotland’s Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing that he would never support such a reintroduction in Scotland.

Through its membership of the National Species Reintroduction Forum in Scotland, NFU Scotland has also sought and received assurances from Natural England – the body currently assessing the formal application for the trial reintroduction of six lynx to Kielder – that the NSRF would be kept informed and be consulted on the proposals.

The union also plans to make its views known directly to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove MP, who has decided that he, rather than Natural England, will make the final decision on the trial reintroduction application.

Commenting after his Norwegian trip, NFUS vice president, Martin Kennedy said: “Easily the biggest challenge Norwegian sheep farmers face is predation by large carnivores. Although sheep are housed for at least six months of the year, depending on which part of Norway you farm, when they graze up through the trees after lambing then they are extremely vulnerable.

“Predation has reduced over the past 10 years, but this isn’t because of fewer predators, but more to do with the fact that a number of hill farmers have simply stopped keeping sheep," said Mr Kennedy. “The Norwegian NFU believe that around 1000 hill farmers have given up keeping sheep in the last decade as they simply cannot carry on at the levels of predation.

“It is all very well receiving the compensation but that doesn't allow for the psychological impact that this scale of losses has on farmers. Putting myself in their shoes, I can understand why they've given up."

Mr Kennedy's understanding of the Norwegian compensation scheme was that it had an annual budget of around £18million pounds, with half of that spent on actual compensation payments and the rest on administration.

But he stressed that such a scheme was not something Scottish farmers would aspire to: “We are in this business to produce good quality food and looking after our animals is a priority, so to see a healthy breeding animal being taken out by a predator early in her life would be horrendous.

“The Norwegians told us that to reintroduce predators into our country would be an absolute catastrophe," he added. "Their experience has simply strengthened our resolve to ensure that any proposals to do the same in Scotland receive rigorous scrutiny.”