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 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.
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
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.
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
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?
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?
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.
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.