Fracking is causing a "fear of the unknown" among Britain's rural population, a Sussex MP warned today.

Nick Herbert's comments came amid increasing signs of unease among MPs about the innovative method of extracting gas for energy from shale deposits deep beneath the ground.

Another Tory MP, Eric Ollerenshaw, warned of the danger that the development of shale gas facilities could create a new "North-South divide".

And the Liberal Democrat party president, Tim Farron, warned that a "short-sighted" rush to exploit deposits could cause long-lasting damage to the countryside.

"I am afraid the Government has seen flashing pound signs and has not considered the long-term threats fracking poses to the countryside," said Mr Farron. "I think this is a very short-sighted policy and we will all be left to live with the consequences."

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Mr Herbert did not position himself in opposition to fracking, but made clear that his constituents in the West Sussex seat of Arundel and South Downs have deep concerns about the procedure, which involves fracturing rock deposits deep below the ground with high-pressure blasts of water and chemicals.

Test drilling began last week at a site in Balcombe, West Sussex, in the face of protests by local people and environmental activists, who are concerned about potential harm to the water table, as well as the possibility of mini-earthquakes. Energy company Cuadrilla insists that its current operations will not involve fracking in the area.

Mr Herbert told the Telegraph: "There is a lot of concern about the impact of new housing in West Sussex. This (fracking) is seen as a second threat to the countryside.

"People are worried about the implications and they don't have enough information to know how damaging it will be. It is the fear of the unknown that is exacerbating local concerns. People understand the national arguments about the need for secure and cheap energy, but they don't know how much this is going to damage the local environment."

As protesters demonstrated against drilling in Sussex, Lancaster and Fleetwood MP Mr Ollerenshaw warned that the North of England would not be prepared to absorb the potential environmental damage from fracking while the South reaped the financial rewards.

Mr Ollerenshaw was speaking after Tory peer Lord Howell of Guildford sparked outrage by suggesting that fracking should be confined to "desolate" parts of the North of England.

Lancashire has been identified as one of the areas of Britain with most potential for hydraulic fracturing, which involves using water and chemicals to break up rocks deep underground, with a recent report suggesting there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas present.

But Mr Ollerenshaw said it was important that any extraction operations benefited people in the county.

He told BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour: "What Lord Howell was trying to say just reinforces, if you like, a northern prejudice that southerners haven't got a clue what the North West is like, or indeed the North East.

"It does look as if the rest of the country wants to use Lancashire as its energy base. There's a particular environmental concern about the use of water and the impact on the water table... but long term what is going to be the benefit to the area where this is going to happen?

"This is not to become a North-South divide... We want (a) level playing field across the country. We do not want - and it looks at the moment - that the North gets the dirty end and the South sucks up all the energy."

In reported comments from a private meeting, energy minister Michael Fallon appeared to relish the idea of fracking taking place beneath the homes of "chattering class" commentators in The Weald, in the affluent South East.

Mr Fallon has been a public advocate of shale gas, but the Mail on Sunday reported that he told the meeting that "the beauty" of drilling in Hampshire, Sussex and Surrey was that "of course it's underneath the commentariat - all these people writing leaders saying, `Why don't they get on with shale?' We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive!"

A DECC spokesman did not dispute the paper's account of the comments, but said: "Fracking will only be allowed in the Weald if it is safe and poses no risk to the environment."

Craig Bennett, director of of Friends of the Earth's policy and campaigns, said: "Michael Fallon's unguarded comments will resonate across the UK and fuel more opposition to the Government's disastrous support for fracking.

"Ministers must pull the plug on shale gas and oil extraction, especially as there's plenty of evidence they won't lead to cheaper fuel bills.

"We need an energy policy based on cutting waste and developing the nation's huge renewable power potential - not one that wrecks our clean and pleasant land and pumps more pollution into our atmosphere."