Tougher measures are needed to prevent dog attacks on livestock and keep meat and dairy costs down - GP Taylor

Last March, I had one of the best Spring days out for a long time. The morning was spent at Sledmere House with their annual opportunity to feed the spring lambs. It was well worth the visit and gave me an opportunity to discuss farming.

Talking to a very knowledgeable member of staff I was amazed to find out how much hard work went into sheep farming. It was worrying to hear that dog attacks on sheep were on the rise and, with sheep costing hundreds of pounds, it not only hits the farmer in the pocket, but also the consumer. If the cost of production rises, then the cost of meat over the counter goes up as well. The much looked forward to Easter leg of lamb will become more expensive.

I fear that this coming Easter, we will see an even higher rate of dog attacks on farm animals.

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During a recent trip to the Forest of Dean, I was amazed by how many dog owners allowed their animals to run free, even though the forest is full of deer and wild boar.

A sign warning dog walkers to keep dogs on a lead in the countryside. PIC: AdobeA sign warning dog walkers to keep dogs on a lead in the countryside. PIC: Adobe
A sign warning dog walkers to keep dogs on a lead in the countryside. PIC: Adobe

The fields surrounding the forest are also full of sheep and yet, no dog walker seemed to care that their pooch was running free.

In the past, when I have mentioned this to dog owners, I am usually sworn at or told that their dog would never harm anything. Unless a dog is specifically stock trained, then any dog is a danger to other animals, especially sheep. It is a deep atavistic urge within even the smallest dog to chase. Even if the dog doesn’t actually bite the sheep, the animal can die through the stress of being chased.

So, why are dog owners reluctant to put their animals on a lead? I believe there is a belief that as soon as the dog is out of the car and on a country lane or track then it should be allowed to run free. It will deposit its steaming dinner in the long grass and then frolic as the owner walks along behind oblivious to what it is doing.

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In the blink of an eye, it could breach the fence and be amongst a flock of sheep doing untold damage. At this point, dog owners reading this have rolled their eyes and thought that their little Snuggles would never do that.

As a former rural police officer, there is nothing worse than to turn up to a sheep worrying incident. Blood, intestines, and a half dead sheep bleating its last is not a pretty sight.

In April 2016, one farmer saw 66 lambs and 19 ewes killed in a single field by two loose Labradors. That’s right, Labradors. Kind, family type dogs, with big eyes and slobbering mouths that many owners would say wouldn’t hurt a fly.

An NFU Mutual’s survey of over 1,100 dog owners found that despite 64 per cent of owners admitting their dogs chase animals, almost half (46 per cent) believe their dog was not capable of injuring or killing livestock.

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According to the National Farmers Union (NFU), UK costs of dog attacks are up by 50 per cent since before the pandemic. Those costs will be passed on to shoppers in higher prices for meat and dairy.

It would be very simple to stop sheep worrying altogether. All it would take is for every dog owner to keep their pet on a lead when walking in the countryside.

The Countryside Code is very clear. Dogs should be kept on a lead. That is not a lot to ask, but the obsession amongst some dog owners to allow their animal to have a ‘good run’ outweighs the danger. I think they believe they have a divine right to access the countryside and not obey the simple rules.

The statistics speak for themselves and cannot be ignored. The Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) Bill 2024, does not go far enough to solve the problem. Although it is welcomed, it has to go further.

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Currently it will allow police wider powers of entry in relation to such incidents; to be able to collect DNA samples from dogs suspected of involvement in livestock worrying incidents and powers to seize and detain dogs after serious incidents of attacks on livestock.

Sadly, that is not enough. Provision should be made in law for unlimited fines and full compensation to be paid by dog owners whose animals worry livestock.

Farmers should be able to shoot and kill any dog running free on their land, regardless of whether they are in active pursuit of sheep or cattle. It should be a legal requirement for dogs to be kept on a lead at all times when in the countryside.

The Animals Act 1971 allows a person to shoot a dog to protect livestock subject to strict legal tests.

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Dogs have to be in the act of worrying, which can mean actively harming livestock and not just in the same field. That is not good enough.

Sheep and cattle need to be protected from the growing scourge of dog attacks. Dog owners have to be held criminally responsible for the actions of their animals and made aware of the consequences of their negligent behaviour.

GP Taylor is a writer and broadcaster who lives in Yorkshire.

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