Dogs and sheep / lamb worrying

Sheep in a field in Northamptonshire

Due to individual availability, the planned time of year when we plan to embark on our charity Offa’s Dyke challenge is early to mid April. As this is during the lambing season, it has been bothering me what impact we, and especially my dog, will have during this important time of year for sheep farmers.

In this post I will cover a few of the issues relating to sheep worrying (although it also applies to other livestock), what the problem is, what damage can be done, where the law stands, the consequences to farmers, and what can be done by dog walkers to reduce the impact on sheep during lambing season.

My German Shepherd

My dog is a German Shepherd – generally, unless she feels threatened or thinks I am being threatened, she is an absolute softie. My mother, who is scared of German Shepherds, adores her. To other dogs, again unless she feels threatened, she is playful – overally playful to be honest (perhaps a subject of another blog post).

Whilst out and about in the countryside, she is often off the lead – her recall is brilliant and she doesn’t run through crops or dive in and out of hedgerows. She is quite happy sniffing the path in front – presumably to make sure all is safe for me to proceed. However, if I am in or near a field containing sheep (and other livestock), she goes on her lead immediately. Despite how harmless or obedient I think she is, the bottom line is she has animal instincts.

A dog’s instinct

It is now widely acknowledged that even though our dogs have been domesticated for a long time they have not lost their basic instincts.

Angela Stockdale – Dog Aggression Specialist

An angry wolf - ancestors to dogs

Instinctively a dog will want to chase anything running away. It only takes some sudden movement or a scent of an animal, and no matter how well behaved they may be, your dog’s instinct will kick in and off it goes, completely oblivious to any commands to come back.

(I am obviously mainly talking household dogs here – working dogs and other extremely well trained dogs have had their instinct controlled by training)

My dog is no exception – she will chase rabbits, squirrels, even cats given half a chance. Although she is quite calm on the lead whilst walking through a sheep field – I am sure she wouldn’t think twice about chasing them as they run away if she could.

Most dogs are unlikely to actually have the aim of killing sheep – most will simple chase until they catch up and then get bored (although in their excitement they may nip the animal). Only certain dogs have a born or learnt urge to kill, however damage to sheep, especially during the lambing season, may have already occurred by simply disturbing the sheep.

Damage caused by sheep worrying

The most obvious damage caused by sheep worrying, that we are all probably aware of, is serious injury or death to the sheep:

“The worst attack was at Four Marks last April – a ewe which was in lamb with twins had her throat ripped out. The suffering of this sheep was terrible – she was still breathing when she was found, but we had to have her humanely destroyed and the twin lambs died too,” explained Mr Wyeth.

Two of his ewes were then killed in a dog attack two days after Christmas at Blacklands Farm near Basingstoke. An eye witness reported seeing three boys with a small black dog but no one was brought to account for the deaths.

However it is not just injury or death that can cause problems to sheep:

Movement away from grazing

Sheep grazing in Northamptonshire

Good grazing is really important for a sheep leading up and during lambing. Especially when roaming across open land, sheep will drift towards areas with the best grazing. When disturbed by walkers, the sheep will move away a short distance and resume grazing. However, if the sheep are chased, they will be chased much further away from the good grazing, and it will take some time for them to settle and return. If this is repeated, then the sheep may be excluded from the grazing for a long time.

Restriction of grazing on top of constant movement will eventually affect the sheep’s condition which could result in difficult births and underweight, weak lambs.

Northumberland National Park

Disturbance during lambing

As the birth approaches the ewe will move away from the flock to a quiet sheltered place. If the ewe is flushed out by an overexcited dog, then it is possible the ewe may abort. Immediately after the birth, is the ewe is chased away, the lamb’s survival is threatened and the development of maternal bonding vital to the lambs’ survial may be broken.

Lamb seperation from their mothers

When sheep are afraid it is their natual instinct to flock together. However if the lambs are seperated from their mothers they may follow the wrong ewe. When the flock settles, and the ewe realised it is not her lamb, it gets pushed away. If very young, the lamb will soon get cold from hunger and become too frail to suckle even if their mother finds them before they die.

Sheep worrying and the law

A gavel
Firstly a slight disclaimer – I am not a lawyer. Any information that follows is based on my personal understanding of the law and what I have read elsewhere. I have included links to each of the acts so you can make your own judgement.

A dog owner (or person in charge of the dog) has committed an offence under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 (the act was added to by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) if their dog worries livestock on agricultural land.

Worrying livestock means:

  • attacking livestock
  • chasing livestock where it may be reasonably expected to cause injury or suffering to livestock, in cause abortion, or cause loss or problems with their produce
  • being at large (i.e. not on a lead or otherwise under close control) in a field or enclosure in which there are sheep

That last point is particularly interesting – it suggests that legally your dog is worrying sheep just by being in a sheep field not under close control (although I wonder what the legal definition, if any, is for “close control”).

Livestock includes cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses, asses, mules, poultry (including domestic fowls, turkeys, geese or ducks). It does not seem to cover game birds.

The offence is punishable by a fine of upto £1000.

So what about the legal right for farmers to shoot dogs?

Farmer with a shotgun

Well, and this could well just be semantics, but the act usually quoted as granting a “legal right” for shooting dogs is the Animals Act 1971. I am not so sure it gives a legal right, but it does give a legal defence – in other words (and remember I am not a lawyer!), the farmer has to prove he acted within the act (whereas a legal right implies proving he didn’t). Here is the relevant part of the act:

9. (1) In any civil proceedings against a person (… referred to as the defendant) for killing or causing injury to a dog it shall be a defence to prove:
(a) that the defendant acted for the protection of any livestock and was a person entitled to act for the protection of that livestock
(b) that within forty-eight hours of the killing or injury notice thereof was given by the defendant to the officer in charge of a police station.
(2) (this clause explains who is entitled to act for the protection of any livestock)
(3) Subject to subsection (4) of this section, a person killing or causing injury to a dog shall be deemed for the purposes of this section to act for the protection of any livestock if, and only if, either:
(a) the dog is worrying or is about to worry the livestock and there are no other reasonable means of ending or preventing the worrying; or
(b) the dog has been worrying livestock, has not left the vicinity and is not under the control of any person and there are no practical means of ascertaining to whom it belongs.

Extract from the Animals Act 1971

Note the words defendant!

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if it is a legal right or a legal defense – the bottom line is that a farmer will not be prosecuted for shooting your dog – provided “there are no other reasonable means of ending or preventing the worrying”.

The same act also states that if your dog causes damage by killing or injuring livestock, the owner (or keeper) is liable for the damage.

Consequences to farmers

NFU Mutual insurers have said that the estimated cost of attacks on sheep was £900,000 a year – this is likely to be higher as some farmers do not have cover for livestock worrying or attacks. Personally I would be surprised if these figures include costs of abortions and lambs dying prematurely indirectly caused by dogs worrying sheep. Lambing is the main harvest for a sheep farmer, and the lambing season influences on average two-thirds of the farm’s annual income.

Dog owners may view their pet chasing sheep as a minor incident – but it has major consequences for animal welfare and farmers’ livelihoods.

The Southern Daily Echo reported last year that dog attacks cost the industry more than £2m a year (again I doubt this includes indirect losses) and as dog worrying seems to on the increase, things are only going to get worse for farmers unless dog owners take action to prevent it from happening.

So what can dog owners do?

RSPCA campaign to put dogs on leads near livestock

The RSPCA are collaborating with the National Sheep Association and National Farmers’ Union to distribute signs and posters to help educate dog owners to keep their dogs on leads near livestock.

Keeping your dog on a lead will clearly stop your dog from chasing sheep, and is definately a must for any dog owner near livestock, but I am still concerned about the impact of walking through lambing fields (and land) with my dog.

A few people have said to me: “well if the farmers are so worried about sheep worrying during lambing, they shouldn’t put sheep in fields with footpaths”. I have no sympathy for this argument – firstly as a lot of footpaths originated from the routes farm hands walked to work from villages, most farms are a hub of footpaths out to the surrounding villages. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are farms where every single field has at least one footpath in. Secondly this argument is not practical for open grazing spaces like most of our National Parks.

Likewise I don’t think the argument “dog owners should stay clear of lambing fields” is practical either, especially when trying to follow a National Trail, unless you want to let dog walkers wander freely across farmland trying to find an alternative route!

I would like to thank Sally, who has an excellent blog “Rural Diaries – live the country life, love the countryside and learn about rural issues”, who finally put me at ease with the following advice:

Keeping the dog on a short lead is fine but try to also keep it calm, a dog panting, barking and straining at the lead can be stressful for sheep, particularly when they are lambing or have lambs at foot.

Like any animal that has a flight instinct in the presence of danger, if you are walking toward a sheep or lambs slow down and give them time and room to flee.

Be aware of clumps of reeds, small dips in the landscape, beside walls or fence posts, as young lambs will often be left in or near shelter while the mother grazes, so it’s easy to walk through a clump of reeds to suddnly come across two little trembling bodies. Just try to walk around anything that could be hiding lambs.

That is really all you need to do to be a thoughtful dog owner and minimise the impact on livestock.

Sheep calm but keep a wary eye on my dog

I followed this advice on my last walk when I went through quite a few sheep fields in Northamptonshire. Although the lambs are a little older, I am pleased to report that, by keeping the dog calm and giving the sheep and lambs a chance to move away, there was very little disturbance to the sheep. In fact in one field, the sheep actually started coming up to us!

If you have any comments about sheep worrying, any corrections of my dodgy legal interpretations, or want to share your experiences, please feel free to comment below.

23 Replies to “Dogs and sheep / lamb worrying”

  1. Congratulations, an excellent article and very well balanced between the rights of livestock/land owners and the public desire to enjoy walking our beautiful countryside.

    I’m so please you found my advice works and I hope your article will encourage other dog owners to recognise the fear sheep feel with dogs around and give them space and time to move to a more secure feeling area.

    May I just add that it is important to recognise your dogs body language, you have to bring them back under control BEFORE they go into chase mode, or by then it’s too late and they will simply ignore your command to heel, no matter how well trained they are. I had to learn this myself when I first moved with my pet dogs onto a sheep farm.
    .-= Sally´s last blog ..Grow Your Own Potatoes in Containers =-.

  2. What about the ‘Farmers’ who go out hunting other people’s cattle dog’s in a violent snow storm, knowing who’s dog’s they belong to, that they was stock proof and that the owners did their best to look for them, they them call them over with a sheep whistle (knowing they are trained for this) shoot them dead, hide their bodies for ten day’s, do not report the killings to the Police, then refused to hand over the bodies when found out?

  3. Hi David – what a terrible situation. I am sorry to read what happened.

    Unfortunately there are unpleasant people in all walks of life and this is very different from farmers protecting their stock.

    I assume your only recourse is to contact the police – from my (limited) understanding of the law, if “sheep worrying” is their defence they have clearly broken the law.

  4. The Police are as much use as a chocolate tea pot.The way our Solicitors see it, because he could not prove that they was worrying it is classed as Criminal Damage ie destruction of property.He knew we was out everyday in the worse weather conditions ever known round here looking for the dog’s, we contacted the Police, dog wardens, every dog’s homes and Charities we could find. We even had it broadcast on Radio Leeds as well as put a £1,000 reward up. It was only the fact that our ad was seen in the local paper by another neighbour, who knew he must tell us that we found out. When we went round to see this entity he denied it, then tried to blame it on a totally innocent neighbour, then admitted to it. He said they had been worrying, yet no dead or injured sheep, no reporting of the worrying to the police, no vets reports, nothing. We asked for the dog’s bodies back for burial, he refused THEN said ‘if you do not get off my farm I will do the same to you as I did to those dog’s’ with this we got into our Land Rover and went straight to the Police. THEY made us wait for an hour and a half, THEN two days later went round to speak with this entity. THEN told us it was a ‘civil’ matter. My wife complained and complained, top and bottom of it all the Independent Police Complaints Commission has upheld our appeal and now the Police are being forced to properly investigate. He still has his gun’s. He is 78 years old, going deaf, bad eyesight and has difficulty walking.

  5. Glad to hear the police are finally investigating it properly (even if you have had to force their hand).

    I cannot imagine what you have gone through – the steps you took to try and find them just shows how much the dogs meant to you. Best of luck in your fight to get justice and to stop it happening to anyone else.

  6. We have a 2 year old Husky and live in a small village outside of Cambridge, about a mile away from the nearest farm. We had to have a freedom fence put around the perimeter of our land as it is the only thing strong enough to contain our dog, unfortunately as with most Huskys he has no understanding of the word “come” even after £300 of puppy and dog training. A few weeks ago our next door neighbours horses kindly chewed through our fencing and allowed our dogs to escape (the other dog is a greman shepphard but does not usually go anywhere as he is too dumb to fend for himself). As luck would have it, it was one of my very rare days away from the house and the dogs were not noticed missing for a few hours. As soon as I returned I call the police and the Dog Warden and within 10 minutes we had a call saying they had been sheep worrying at the nearest local farm. My husband and I drove straight round, caught the dogs (easily) and gave the farmer all of our contact details. We said we would pay any vets fees, I offered to sit with one of th sheep who had been nipped until the vet came etc. The farmer was very pleasent, said he totally understood the situation etc etc. The council came round the following week to make sure we were taking precautions and were happy with our set up, happier than I am having to shop my childrens bloved pets everytime they go near the border of our land.

    My daughter came home from school last week asking why a local farmer had threatened to shoot her dogs and then today in the post I gor a letter from the farmer saying if he saws the dogs “attacking” his sheep again he would have them shot! I am totally devastated, my daughhter is heartbroken and we are utterly terrified that the dogs may ever escape again. My dogs are not trained to “attack” sheep and they chase my horse all over the place without biting her so I can only assume the injured sheep was the result of a chasing game gone wrong or natural instinct, but why after injuring the sheep would my dog not then go back and finish the job if “attacking” the sheep was his main goal?

    I am such a careful dog owner and my children love our dogs very much. Can he legally kill my dogs now he knows who they are and where they are from just because he thinks they may “attack” his sheep? We already explained the situation to him and he seemed perfectly happy with our apology and this was over a month ago now and the dogs have not gone back or escaped since.

    Can someone advise me please

  7. As well as threatening to shoot 2 members of my family he also wants £300 in veterinary bills or he will prosecute. I had already offered to pay these so do not understand why he is being so awful to us

  8. Hi Carla,

    I am really sorry to hear about your terrible situation.

    The only explanation I can think of is that the farmer has suffered a number of attacks on his sheep since the incident with your dogs from unknown dogs, which he is blaming on yours (as the dogs he has caught attacking his sheep).

    If this is the case, my suggestion would be to go and talk to the farmer, reassure him that the incident has not occurred again, and to offer to show him your fencing etc. It is of course also possible that he is just being unreasonable.

    If you have a read of this article ( by Angela Stockdale, a dog aggression specialist, it explains the five categories of dogs that show an interest in livestock – your dogs are unlikely to want to kill the sheep, but is likely to have got overly excited and nipped them.

    My understanding of the law (and I am no expert) is that a farmer has a legal defence (not a legal right) to shoot dogs who are not under control (i.e. on a lead or not being recalled by an owner). Unfortunately your dogs are likely to now have a taste for chasing sheep, so I would recommend keeping them on leads anywhere near livestock.

    Sally, who is a farmer, has written a blog post about sheep worrying: The comments are really interesting, as a lot are from people who have had similar problems, and Sally’s advice is really helpful (she has a lot more experience than me!)

    Good luck and please let me know how it goes.


    P.S. I would argue German Shepherds are too loyal to wander off not dumb!!

  9. Thanks Phil and if you were to meet Scruffy that subject would definately be up for debate. His favourite passtime is sitting in front of my car so I cannot go anywhere without running him over, this is either a seriously intelligent move from a very loyal companion so I dont go anywhere without him or he is seriously stupid and doesnt realise I could accidently run him over if my foot slips from the brake!!

    I am almost certain they did not mean to hurt any of the sheep as they are around livestock ie horses all day every day, all of their lives and they have never come to any harm. There is no mention in the letter of any attacks since my dogs escaped so can only assume he is being unreasonable when he didnt need to be. He says in his letter he doesnt think our fencing is strong enough to contain 2 large dogs but anything stronger and their heads would be blown off! Surely my dogs cant be the only dogs that have ever escaped from their back garden? I just feel really rotten about the whole thing, being an animal lover, and was really worried about the sheep that got nipped, I even stayed for 30 minutes when I collected to dogs to talk to him and make sure he had the number of a good vet etc. I hate it when you try and be nice and people treat you like a doormat

  10. Hi, Carla, i do so hope you get this message. Report this ‘farmer’ to the Police for ‘threatening behaviour. Even if they do nothing you still have a record of this and a crime number. This farmer has no right to threaten you or your daughter with ‘shooting your dog’s’ My two Neapolitan Mastiffs were shot dead with one of these ‘farmers’ I use that term very loosely. I have had my case with the Police on going for over nine months now. They refused to act when this piece of scum shot my dog’s. He cannot prove that my dog’s were worrying as he did not report the worrying or shooting to the Police which is required by Law. When i confronted him he got nasty and threatened to ‘do the same to us as he had done to my dog’s’ when he realised his game was up as both of my Neapolitan’s were trained cattle dog’s and both were used to work our Dairy Herd.His usual excuse of ‘worrying’ did not wash when he was confronted by real Farmers. The Police did NOTHING then I complained to the IPCC who ‘police’ the police. They have upheld my complaint. Last week I got back from the Police Force that had been dealing with it a ‘Case Summery’ report. It had more holes in it than a string vest! I have appealed to the IPCC again and the decision is final. I only hope they see through it. I am waiting for their reply at the moment. Go to the Police, report this individual. if they do nothing about it, go to the Professional standards Department of that Police Force. If they do nothing about it go to the IPCC. Keep your dog on a lead at all times. Do not give him the opportunity to shoot your dog, he will love to. That is what specimens like this do. Good luck

  11. Ok Carla – the German Shepherd does sound a little daft!

    I hope David’s comment is helpful – see his earlier comments for the awful situation he found himself in.

    These problems are caused by the minority of dog owners, unlike yourself, who do not care about the damage they may cause to livestock, and the minority of farmers, seemingly like this one, who bully people and who corrupt the actual law regarding livestock worrying.

    Best of luck in finding a solution.

  12. i am happy to report my husband took a cheque round to the “farmer” last night to cover all of his vet bills and confronted him about his threatening letter. Apparently he just wanted to be “firm” and doesnt even own a gun! My husband said the farmer hardly looked him in the eye and when my husband suggested that we go to the police the farmer retracted all of his earlier threats. I am keeping hold of the letter and keeping a very close eye on both of my pups so fingers crossed this is the last I will hear about the situation. Its a shame as I feel absolutely awful about my husky nipping his sheep and would quite honestly of helped in anyway possible. The ironic thing is I havent eaten Lamb in 20 years as my nan used to have a farm near her house and I once bottle fed a baby lamb and vowed never to eat their meat again!!Apparently Rocky doesnt share in my views.

    Thanks for your comments and David your situation sounds devastating, I hope you find a resolution soon although what has happened can never be undone. Its a shame that irresponsible dog owners give all of us a bad name

  13. Hi, Carla, it is amazing what happens when one stands up to bullies. Keep hold of the letter that is evidence. Keep a good eye on your dog’s make sure they are chipped and tagged. Good Luck. i will let everyone know the outcome with the police and my Civil Case if the IPCC no not uphold my Appeal.

  14. Great article, I own a lurcher and terrier both rescue, and always chasing wildlife rabbits etc… but we also have small farm, our horse and sheep have just been attacked by 2 Husky’s, the sheep was dragged in the stream, vet came we treated his small injuries and we hoped he was on mend, still not standing a few days later he was put down. His back was injured so badly I feel sick we have the police involved, I don’t understand what part of instinct people don’t understand, I love my dogs dearly but would never trust them, these Husky’s were both off the leads and 1 was muzzled!! I am just so angry the owner at first tried to deny it, but his dogs were covered in mud as the sheep was and our neighbours witnessed it, I am really worried about what control he really has over his dogs, thank goodness my horse kicked out but they did rip her rug, I would also like to add that my 2yr old son is often out helping me feed, learning to care for out animals, thankfully he wasn’t out that morning.

  15. I am disappointed that yesterday one of my Turkeys was killed. I didn’t see what had killed her but she was only two years old and had been plucked in one spot and a whole had been eaten out of her. I let my Guinea Fowl out this morning and walked along my boundary which is thick and tall with hawthorn etc and saw a dog in the field next door chasing my Guinea Fowl with the, I assume, owners saying isn’t that funny, go on then. They didn’t realise I was the other side of the hedge listening. I have now lost because two have flown off with fright two Guinea Fowl. I didn’t confront them because I am on my own this morning and didn’t was any backlash. This is the mentality of some dog walkers for you, encouraging their dog and laughing. I am now wondering whether to report this because as I understand it the Livestock Act doesn’t include game birds.

  16. my 2 year old dog was shot last week for attacking some chickens. The farmer did not have a gun on the premisis to kill my dog so had to phone another farmer. that would have taken at least 10-15 minets for the other farmer to arrive. My dogs collar is ripped, torn and the metal plate is bent. It seems as though he has been tied up to be shot, other wise my dog would not have been there when the farmer arrived. i had to pick my dog up in a blood filled bin bag from the police station. Is this legal?

    1. Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      Yestarday the farmer kill my poor husky dog
      She escape from ours garden and nearly kill one sheep ,the farmer kill our dog in neck by the pitchforks.
      He call police and the iipc will contact with me
      What will be hapend?
      How much is penalty for sheep?
      What with the farmer basted?

  17. p.s i would have quite happily paid the farmer for the damage caused by my dog if he had caught him and not shot him

  18. I’ve just read your read article.
    We recently moved to the Lake District from Gateshead, nr. Newcastle, along with our two dogs Hector and Midge, a rescue dog who’s about 5 years old.
    Keen to walk on “my” local Fell, I was out with the dogs before all the boxes were unpacked. Then to my horror – and for the first time ever – Midge saw some sheep move and was off, chasing them. I finally got him back and thankfully no harm was done but I knew I couldn’t let it happen again.
    Desperate not to let it happen again, I did a Google search and found dog trainer Janet Ardley who runs Cumbria Dog Training.
    Janet has sorted the problem out. We went to her field of sheep with both dogs and a long lead.
    The moment Hector showed any interest in them it was a sharp “no” and she rattled a bottle with stones in it and it worked. But not for Midge. She tried a couple of other options without success before I agreed to her using an electronic collar, something I didn’t really want.
    Janet said it was the last thing she would ever use, but doing so brought about the desired results. Midge has never looked at a sheep since then so it’s my opinion that Janet has done a great job.


  19. Hi Laura – I am really sorry, but I am not able to provide legal advice on this, although it seems unlikely because if the dog is tied up it is no longer worrying livestock and ‘under control’.

    Thanks Fred for the advice.

  20. We have a field, approx two and a half acres in size, with a public footpath through the centre of it. Below the footpath and a good distance from it, the field dips into a hollow with shaded areas of bushes and trees.

    We have four ex battery hens that roam freely in the dip area of the field although the area is not fenced off from the rest of the field.

    Since having the hens, we have erected prominent signs at both ends of the footpath S it enters the field. The sign warns of free range hens in the field, asks walkers to keep to the public footpath and to keep dogs on a lead or under close control.

    Today, a local walker crossed the field with her two white Scottie dogs. They both ran off chasing the hens and one ripped off a large part of the rear end of a hen. The Ben was later put down humanely by a vet. It may only be a chicken to anyone else but to me she was a lovely and responsive animal.

    What is the legal position regarding this situation? Can I insist that the dogs are on a lead in future and what can I do if the owner refuses to comply?

  21. Hey, i live in an open township and sheep and cattle walk past my house and occasionally my dog hurries them on their way much to my frustration. Today i heard my dog was down at the bottom of the township and as i collected him and walked home a neighbor said he was chasing the sheep and the police were on their way. of course that was an hour ago and the police still have not arrived. The dog is in the house right now but what should i do? Am i in the wrong for not training my dog properly?
    Alasdair 16!

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