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Dogs and ramblers

Courts in France are leaning on the side of the farmers when it comes to sheep-protection dogs — something that would be unlikely in the UK, says Alasdair Mitchell

country gate

Imagine you are wending your way through an alpine mountain pasture. It’s a bucolic scene, littered with the white, woolly shapes of grazing sheep. Then one of the white blobs hurtles towards you, barking. This ain’t a sheep; it’s a dog. A huge, snarly one. These things — typically Pyrenean mountain dogs or similar breeds — have long been used by shepherds in France to ward off predators.

As wolves have returned to parts of the countryside, so an increasing number of sheep-protection dogs have been deployed. There are thought to be about 5,000 of them in the French Alps and Pyrenees. At the same time, the number of hikers and mountain bikers has also increased. Confrontation is inevitable, but the shepherds are unrepentant. “Get rid of the wolves and we won’t need the dogs,” one told a local paper.


According to a report in The Times, an increasing number of French walkers are setting out equipped with pepper spray and whips. In many cases, it is said, these methods only antagonise the dogs, worsening the situation. Last year, 105 people were reported as being bitten by sheep-protection dogs in France. To date, the courts have tended to be unsympathetic to the hikers; of eight recent cases, seven were dismissed. One is continuing. French tourism bodies have produced videos showing the best ways to lessen the risks.

I suspect that such matters might be treated slightly differently over here. I recall the case of friends who live in a very remote cottage. There is a public footpath running through their garden. This was never used much until the local authority decided to promote it as part of a circular walk.

After the hordes started to arrive at all hours of the night and day, a permissive diversion was installed, with easy gates, around the garden. Almost all walkers were happy to use this, but one militant rambler insisted on exercising her right to walk through the garden.

One afternoon, she met the couple’s German shepherd on the lawn. I am told he was a large but friendly beast who loved meeting people. My friend came out of his potting shed to be greeted by the sight of the happy dog standing with his front paws on the rambler’s shoulders, trying to lick her face. The rambler was literally fixed to the spot. My friend called the dog and apologised profusely. The rambler staggered off, speechless.

A few weeks later, my friends received a letter from the local authority instructing them to keep their dog on a lead when it was within their garden. They were reminded that even though there was a permissive diversion, the legal right of way still existed and it was an offence to obstruct it or deter people from using it.

I cannot remember what happened after that, but I did later speak to the rambler in question. She complained that, quite apart from the dog, the garden was untidy, being littered with children’s toys that she’d had to pick her way around.