NATIONAL park officials have been accused of plotting to turn Exmoor into a giant safari park.
And Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger says their plans to ‘rewild’ part of the moor are nothing more than a smokescreen.
He says if nothing is done to rein in the park authority the beavers and pine martens it wants to see widely reintroduced could soon be joined by more exotic species such as lynx.
The authority has announced a scheme to use at least 10 per cent of the park – 26 square miles – to create wilder areas such as wetlands, scrub and woodlands.
Detailed proposals were approved last week by Exmoor’s nature conservation advisory panel, drawn largely from external wildlife organisations.
Final proposals will be published in the spring and park officials say they are consulting with hill farming groups.
But, said Mr Liddell-Grainger: “That is national park speak for telling them what has already been decided.”
The MP, whose Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency includes two-thirds of Exmoor, said he was being deluged with complaints about the plan from farmers, with a protest meeting already being organised.
“Only a few thousand acres are in its hands. The rest is farmland where people are trying to make a living while keeping the nation supplied with food. But that fact appears to have been completely overlooked in all this.”
He said the rewilding proposals had been unduly influenced by the conservation lobby with the interests of farmers largely ignored.
“But we are back to the old Exmoor problem of having policy imposed by outsiders. Among the most enthusiastic supporters of this absolutely bonkers plan are Linda Blanchard and Susan Warren – who are both Defra appointees to the authority.
“As usual the interests of those who live and work in the park come a long way down the priority list.
“Farming on Exmoor has always had to be subsidised because the climate and poor soils make it economically unviable. That is still the case: the last farm the National Trust had available on its Holnicote Estate came with a warning that the new tenant would need a second income.
“On the other hand farmers have delivered huge value for money in terms of keeping the moor looking beautiful. Through them the national park authority has effectively had conservation on the cheap.
“Back in the 80s Exmoor was also the birthplace of the management agreement under which farmers could be compensated for foregone profits in return for allowing land to remain –or become – wild.
“But now the authority appears quite happy to throw farmers under a bus in order to create some kind of massive safari park. And what really concerns me is not so much what is in this plan as what isn’t – because my information is that its more enthusiastic supporters are already talking in terms of introducing lynx.
“I suppose they could have a predatory role to play if the beavers start breeding out of control but on the other hand there would be plenty of other potential meals for them including sheep, cattle and Exmoor ponies.
“This is frankly bizarre behaviour by a national park authority which only a few years ago was trying to stop a local wildlife park keeping kookaburras because they were a non-indigenous species.
“The farming community has my full backing in standing up to this ridiculous plan – and I hope the MP for Taunton will be similarly supportive.”