Could cheetahs be coming to the Lake District?

Dee and Daniel Ashman and cheetah 'Khaleesi' at their Predator Experience in Ayside

Dee and Daniel Ashman and cheetah 'Khaleesi' at their Predator Experience in Ayside - Credit: Archant

Cheetahs are quiet and amiable, according to their owners, but they’ve caused a big row in a tiny Lakeland village near Cartmel, as Sue Riley reports

Dee and Daniel Ashman and cheetah 'Khaleesi' at their Predator Experience in Ayside

Dee and Daniel Ashman and cheetah 'Khaleesi' at their Predator Experience in Ayside - Credit: Archant

It must be one of the strangest planning disputes in the Lake District. The golden eagle and falcons didn’t bother Ayside residents too much and the two hybrid wolves barely caused a stir, but introduce three cheetahs to the quiet Lakeland hamlet and there’s turmoil. Yes, cheetahs, the fastest animals on earth.

Residents in Ayside, a handful of stone cottages with no shop or pub near the foodie-paradise of Cartmel, have been up in arms since the big cats arrived as part of a new venture run by Predator Experience. This September it will be decided if the animals will be allowed to stay in the area – and it all depends whether the design of their enclosure is deemed to fit into the landscape.

Dee and Daniel Ashman bought the cheetahs in October as the latest addition to Predator Experience, the business they run from their home in the south Lakes. They already offer falconry and hawking days and introduced a popular Walking With Wolves adventure three years ago. It was only when they decided to create something truly exclusive, an experience with cheetahs, that the problems began.

Last autumn they heard of three UK-bred cheetahs destined for a Third World zoo and as the usual waiting list for the endangered animals is around three years, they quickly bought them. They built an enclosure in a month, then applied for retrospective planning permission. Locals held meetings, gathered letters of protest, 78 of them signed petitions and generally worried about the danger of housing wild cats in the area, the impact on house prices and the look of the new enclosure just a few metres from a public footpath. Planning permission was refused because of the impact the cheetah housing had on the landscape and they were told to remove it. The Ashmans appealed and the case will be now be heard on September 9.

‘Safety had already been officially dealt with. Because of local concern the Lake District National Park could not turn it down on safety, they turned it down on what it looked like,’ said Daniel. The Ashmans say they built the enclosure on a field which had previously been used as a scrapyard. Although Predator Experience is a fully licensed zoo, for the past nine months Dee has been keeping the cheetahs as part of her own personal collection. If they lose their appeal the cheetahs will be sold and the £50,000 they have spent on the enclosure and legal bills will have been wasted.

‘For a few reasons we realised that going into mammals is a good thing, our eagle experience is very popular but it’s weather dependent and mammals aren’t,’ said Dee. ‘We always wanted to introduce a feline element and cheetahs are a very easy-going amiable cat, they don’t roar and are quite relaxed. We considered lynx but they would be too shy,’ she said.

They planned to offer a keeper experience where visitors feed the cheetahs (the food is on the end of a long pole) and teach them about conservation. They’ve also considered a ‘Walking with Cheetahs’ experience but think might be a step too far. ‘This is the only way we earn a living and we have worked very hard to get where we are. We have no more plans for any more enclosures. A lot of people around here are worried about public safety. In the wild, humans are not on the cheetahs’ menu,’ said Daniel.

The couple claim the only impact on the village will be a few more cars but as the cheetah experience is an on-site one they won’t have to drive customers to nearby Graythwaite Estate as they do when people want to walk with the two hybrid wolves they keep in their back yard.

Most Ayside residents won’t speak publicly about the issue. But Alexandra Fletcher, who only moved to the area a few weeks before the cheetahs, supports the Ashmans. She knows she’s in the minority. ‘I’m a wildlife biologist and the points the locals have been raising show a lack of understanding of the species,’ she said. ‘This is just a young family trying to make their way in life.’

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And Dee added: ‘We are unique, we are a destination place, like the Via Ferrata at Honister. I think the Lake District National Park underestimate us. People travel here to do this. We may not be massive but we bring people here who have a lot of disposable income. I think we do good for the area. We only have one car and I honestly believe we have a happy balance.’

Daniel goes a step further. ‘When you live in a rural setting there’s an element where, being a younger couple, to be sustainable within the Lake District National Park you have got to be slightly entrepreneurial. You have got to think out of the box. Cumbria is full of retired people and second home owners, making it difficult for people to live around here. We are lucky we do what we do but if the National Park want to help alleviate the housing crisis and help small business owners they need to give a bit of thought to our generation who have to do what we do in order to live here’ he said.

Lake District National Park Authority planner Ben Long said a decision on the future of the cheetah enclosure was likely a few weeks after the September hearing. ‘Following the committee’s decision to refuse the application, we served an enforcement notice requiring the removal of the building. The applicants have lodged an appeal against the enforcement notice. The Planning Inspectorate have arranged a public hearing. All parties will have the ability to present their position,’ he said.

Given the strength of feeling on both sides, it’s likely to be a lively meeting.