New online action to help farmers tackle sheep attacks

Too many countryside dog walkers still seem to be unaware that their faithful canine companions can cause horrific livestock deaths, rural experts have warned, as sheep farmers were urged to embrace a new online offensive to counter the menace at peak lambing time.

A lamb with a damaged neck after an attack. Picture by Jane Coltman.

The most docile dogs can get caught up in an attack on a sheep and even without a dog giving chase of animals in farmers’ fields, the results can be tragic, industry experts said.

Gerard Salvin, divisional director at Yorkshire-based farm insurance broker Lycetts, said farmers are forced out of business every year due to the trauma and crippling cost of attacks.

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“Unfortunately, even the most docile of dogs can get caught up in an attack on sheep because many of them think it is a game,” he said.

The aftermath of another sheep attack by dog.

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“What many dog owners don’t realise is that their dog does not have to physically attack a sheep to cause harm. A barking or ‘playful’ dog may seem innocuous to its owner but to a sheep, it is a threat and can spark blind panic among the flock.

“Even if a dog does not make contact with the livestock, the stress from worrying by dogs can cause sheep to die, often by the dozen, and expectant ewes to abort.

The aftermath of another sheep attack by dog.

“As we are in lambing season, the flock is at its most vulnerable now, and we urge dog owners to take heed and stick to the lead. Escaped dogs are also a huge problem so don’t let them roam freely and strengthen your boundaries.”

The cost to farmers of livestock worrying in Yorkshire and the North East last year was estimated by another rural insurer, NFU Mutual, to be £155,000. Claims to recover the costs after attacks rose nearly three-fold between 2015 and 2017, it found.

Many other attacks on small numbers of sheep are believed to go massively under-reported, but social media channels have opened up communication between farmers and the public.

The National Sheep Association said sheep worrying cases are being publicised “at an alarming rate”, as it asked dog owners and the farming community to unite in spreading positive messages on enjoying the countryside responsibly.

“Thanks to an increasingly social media savvy population, horrific cases of sheep worrying by dogs continue to be well-documented online,” the NSA said. “And with the potential to reach thousands, they serve as a powerful tool in highlighting the damage attacks cause.”

Katie James, the NSA’s communications support officer, added: “Sheep worrying by dogs is a very serious problem for farmers which isn’t going away, and NSA continues to hear of a frustratingly high number of dog attacks on livestock.

“We do not want to discourage dog owners from enjoying the beautiful landscapes in Britain, only to do so responsibly and consider the impact an attack can have on farmers business and livelihood as well as animal welfare.”

To coincide with the clocks going forward to mark the start of British summertime tomorrow, the NSA is carrying out a targeted campaign through next week which involves sharing case studies and statistics about livestock worrying on Facebook and Twitter.

Ms James said: “With the long-awaited arrival of spring, farmers can see an increase in walkers on footpaths through and around fields. And at a time when ewes are heavily pregnant or have young lambs at foot, the risk of dogs chasing livestock can also increase the risk of serious problems like ewes aborting or lambs becoming separated from their mothers.

“With the power of social media, we are hoping this campaign can go some way to raise awareness of the problem and ultimately help to reduce the amount of sheep worrying cases we hear about at the NSA.”

As reported in The Yorkshire Post last month, five police forces, including North Yorkshire Police, took part in a study led by The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) to discover the true extent of livestock worrying.

North Yorkshire Police recorded 329 cases of livestock worrying between September 2013 to August 2017. In total, 280 were killed and 292 were injured and in 16 of the recorded incidents, the dog was shot.

The owner was not present in 79 percent of attacks and almost a fifth of cases involved dogs who had worried or damaged livestock before.

Farmers recorded losses of £19,970 from killed and injured livestock and dog owners were fined £3,333 in court.

The NPCC has called for changes to the law to make dog attacks a recordable crime, give police power to seize dogs, to create a DNA database for offending dogs and for harsher sentences for owners.

Animal Welfare Minister Lord Gardiner has pledged to scrutinise recommendations.