THEY are iconic beauty spots and delicate ecosystems teeming with rare wildlife.

But countryside in Hampshire could be at the epicentre of the battleground for controversial fracking.

Wildlife groups have launched a new report highlighting the dangers that shale gas exploration and drilling poses to wildlife.

The ‘Are We Fit to Frack?’ report calls for extraction exclusion zones in Special Protection Areas (SPAs) Special Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the National Parks – warning that endangered species such as pink footed geese, salmon and barbastelle bats could be at risk.

It contains ten separate safety recommendations aimed at minimising disruption to animals, insects and plants and contamination of waterways and groundwater supplies.

It is spearheaded by a collection of groups including the RSPB, The National Trust and The Wildlife Trust, and is supported by a crossparty team of politicians including Southampton Test MP Alan Whitehead.

Fracking – or hydraulic fracturing – involves drilling thousands of feet underground and then pumping in pressurised water and chemicals to crack the rocks below and release trapped pockets of gas.

Licences for exploratory drilling have been granted in parts of Hampshire, including north of Winchester between Kings Worthy and Stockbridge, stretching east from North Baddesley to Swanwick, Hambledon and Hinton in the New Forest.

However the county council, Southampton City Council, and the South Downs and New Forest National Park Authorities still need to give planning permission before exploratory drilling can start.

The report also calls for full environmental assessments to be carried out for each drilling proposal, and for the industry to pay the costs of regulation and pollution clean-ups.

Martin Harper, RSPB conservation director, said: “Our report puts a spotlight on risks and reinforces the growing concern about the impact fracking could have on our countryside and wildlife. We argue that more needs to be done to ensure