Henk Geertsema: The deadly consequences of not clearing up after your dog in the countryside

Dog owners have an important responsibility to clean up after their pets.
Dog owners have an important responsibility to clean up after their pets.
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With the recent spell of balmy weather, there was a corresponding number of people emerging from their couch hibernation and into the countryside. Of course, farmers and other land managers never rest, and are out and about throughout the year, multi-tasking as food producers and acting as custodians of our rural idyll for all to enjoy.

Visiting the countryside is an antidote to the modern sedentary existence. Accessing the fresh air and nature’s aesthetic has widely researched health and wellbeing benefits, and across Yorkshire, we are either in the countryside, or no more than ten minutes drive away in more urbanised areas.

We all celebrate our countryside without always giving a thought to those that tend the landscape we enjoy.

On average, there are about 1.5km recreational routes for every square kilometre in the UK. It is an important part of our tourist industry, and helps encourage a wider understanding of rural life, food production, and the rural economy.

Every year, the Country Land and Business Association urges the public to stick to footpaths, bridleways and respect other users of the rights of way. And generally speaking, the spirit of the Countryside Code is adhered to.

There are however a few worrying trends that are either based on anti-social behaviour or an ‘innocent’ lack of awareness of the working countryside. Think of littering, fly-tipping and not cleaning up after your dog for the former category, and mismanaging your dogs in the latter.

For the former category, there is simply no excuse, and more severe penalties are called for where it concerns these countryside crimes – for that’s what they are. Picking up after your dog is not only considerate to other users of the paths, but it will also minimise the spread of neospora, a parasite in dog muck, which can infect livestock resulting in abortions in cattle and death in sheep.

Infected cows are usually culled as they will continue to abort year after year – so, deadly for the animal, and traumatic for the farmer, emotionally and financially. If human health was as affected by this condition as in livestock, our awareness would have been much greater.

And no, depositing filled dog-doo plastic bags into hedges and trees is not the solution either.

Ryedale District Council recently launched their ‘Don’t be a Waster’ campaign, encouraging responsible dog ownership, encouraging owners to become ‘Green Dog Walkers’. Owners would tie a green ribbon around their dog’s lead to show that they always pick up after their pooches, and that they have spare bags to offer.

Livestock worrying by dogs that are not adequately controlled by their owners is on the increase. There are almost daily reports of sheep worrying, including a proliferation of graphic images of animals on social media, especially sheep, that have been slaughtered by out of control dogs.

Livestock attacks cost the farming industry £1.3m a year in lost revenue and 15,000 sheep are killed each year by dogs.

The National Police Chiefs Council working group on Wildlife Crime and Rural Affairs, chaired by recently retired Chief Constable Dave Jones, published a report on livestock worrying. Five police forces with the highest concentrations of livestock set out to identify the true extent of livestock worrying.

In North Yorkshire, the report indicated that there were 329 recorded cases of livestock worrying over a four-year period (2013-2017) with 280 livestock killed, and a similar number injured. Sadly, 16 of these incidents resulted in the dog being shot, when it is their owner that should be in the dock. Note that many of these incidents go unreported.

Agricultural bodies and media outlets are running campaigns urging dog owners to keep their dog on a lead especially when they’re in the vicinity of livestock. Yet, the same report concluded that in nearly 80 per cent of cases, the owner of the dog was not present. This highlights an issue of unsupervised dogs where the owners are completely absent.

The media’s focus is on ‘sheep worrying’. However, there are other types of livestock that are worried by dogs. The British Horse Society reported more than 643 incidents over the corresponding four-year period, and in 30 per cent of cases, the rider falling from their mount. One case resulted in a rider’s fatality.

Apart from the cruelty inflicted on their animals, the farmer suffers emotionally as well as having their livelihood destroyed. In addition, out of control dogs can disturb ground nesting birds, especially in spring.

Most landowners and farmers welcome visitors to share in the natural beauty of Yorkshire’s countryside. Following the Countryside Code and using common sense and courtesy is the least we can do as an unspoken ‘thank you’ to the custodians of our rural landscape.

The message is simple – keep your dogs under control.