Campaigners who want to see lynx living in Kielder Forest are preparing to submit a second bid to reintroduce the ancient wildcats.

The Lynx UK Trust claims its plan to trial the introduction of a small number of Eurasian lynx into the forest would promote balanced ecosystems and could give the area a multi-million pound tourism boost.

The project proved divisive locally, with some Northumberland sheep farmers fearing the cats might target their livestock, instead of keeping a check on deer populations as intended.

The trust's first application was rejected in 2018 by then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove, following advice from Natural England.

He cited concerns about the "overall feasibility" of the projects, and said the trust had failed to demonstrate "local buy-in" to the project.

But Paul O'Donoghue, chief scientific advisor for the project, believes a second application could get a more favourable reception.

He said: "There's been an amazing amount of work going on behind the scenes, on ecological assessment, speaking to local businesses.

"The coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on rural and tourist businesses and we've been very pleased that a number of businesses have come forward to ask us when we're going to resubmit - they see it as a lifeline for the area, which makes us even more determined to get this done."

He said the trust were "extremely encouraged" by comments made by Tony Juniper, the new head of Natural England, who in February told The Telegraph he would like to consider reintroduction of the lynx, which haven't been seen in England for around 1,300 years.

Mr Juniper told the paper that England's ecosystems had a problem with "many many more deer than there need to be" and that the lynx was "something that we need to look at" as part of the solution.

Dr O'Donoghue said Natural England had already been made aware of the trust's intention to resubmit its bid, although the body has said an application has not yet been received and any such bid will be "carefully considered" before advise is given to Government.

Dr O'Donoghue said his team had always intended to resubmit the application, but that the Covid-19 pandemic had caused delays this year, making it difficult to carry out the necessary public consultation.

With Northumberland still subject to Tier 3 Covid restrictions, the trust now plans to carry out interactive online consultations before putting forward its second bid.

He claimed what would become the "most high profile rewilding project in Europe" could generate millions of pounds each year in tourism revenue, saying visitors to the area had already shown interest in the project.

"The world has completely changed since we put in our applications," he said.

"People now understand more fully the importance of healthy, balanced eco systems; the climate change agenda is front page news; there have been encouraging comments made by Government about rewilding.

"We need lynx in this county to breathe life into failing ecosystems, and there's a huge amount of momentum behind this idea now...

"It will again be a five-year timeline, with a small number of lynx that will be closely monitored using state of the art GPS collars. There will be a clear exit strategy and it will be rigorously scientifically assessed throughout."

The Lynx UK Trust said that the risk to sheep is small, with each lynx expected to kill less than one sheep a year, and Dr O'Donoghue insists rewilding schemes go hand-in-hand with "diversification" opportunities for the farming industry and the chance to access grants for green projects.

But some farmers have continued to raise concerns.

The trust is also preparing to submit a similar bid to introduce lynx in central Scotland, and the National Sheep Association has continued to express its opposition to these plans, saying the apex predator would "greatly impact" on livestock.