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Sheep worrying – a growing problem

Sheep worrying is a growing problem that causes trauma to all concerned, so make sure you’re in control, urges David Tomlinson

spaniel sheep worrying

Introducing a dog to sheep

Sheep worrying – a growing problem

Sheep worrying is a growing problem in the UK, no doubt made worse in the past two years by the growth in dog ownership due to the pandemic. Figures are not yet available for last year but, according to NFU Mutual, the total cost in 2020 of claims for livestock attacks by dogs was about £1.3 million, a figure expected to rise substantially in 2021. (Read how to stop a dog chasing sheep and livestock.)

According to Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, there’s a lack of awareness among dog owners about what their pets are capable of. “Our latest figures confirm the harrowing reports coming in from across the UK of livestock horrifically injured and killed by out-of-control dogs,” she said. “The suffering to animals and the anxiety for farmers could be prevented easily if people kept their dogs on a lead when out in the countryside.”

I admit I don’t always keep my dogs on leads when walking in the countryside, but they are under close control all the time and I live in a predominately arable area, so encounters with livestock are relatively few. They are always put on leads when we encounter animals that could worry. I think many dogs owners forget that sheep are animals that are worried easily. Even if a dog doesn’t actually touch a sheep, it can still do a great deal of damage. This is especially true with pregnant ewes. (Read how to use a slip lead correctly.)


Dogs should be kept on leads or under close control when near livestock

The value of sheep

You may have seen the story in the papers last month about a 29-year-old man who was found guilty in Chesterfield magistrates’ court for failing to stop after an accident. Following an evening drinking in several pubs, he crashed into a flock of sheep on his way home, killing 11, leaving behind him what was described as “a scene of utter carnage”. He was banned for driving for six months, told to pay £85 in court costs and a £95 victim surcharge.

It strikes me that this was an exceedingly lenient penalty. When I checked on the Farmers Weekly website I found that the average price of a ewe is around £670, so the farmer lost sheep worth several thousands of pounds as a result of this man’s dangerous driving. Shouldn’t the guilty party have been ordered to compensate the farmer for his loss? I have a strong suspicion that if your dog had strayed and killed 11 ewes, the penalties would have been far higher.


Pigs can be curious

Curious pigs

Outdoor pigs are rather more numerous than sheep in my area. On the whole, I don’t think that adult pigs are too bothered about dogs. I would be more worried about the dog than the pig in any face-to-face encounters. These, however, are remarkably rare as outdoor pigs are invariably contained by electric fences that do just as good a job of keeping dogs out as pigs in. My most recent encounter with young porkers on a shooting day showed they were curious about what was going on.

John Houlton’s survey of the retirement age of gundogs, revealed 14 dogs in his study died due to accidents in the shooting field, including one that was trampled to death by cattle.

Cattle, like pigs, are able to defend themselves, so it’s always sensible to be cautious when in their vicinity. They, too, are curious creatures, so will come to investigate a dog, which can be a problem. In my experience, young animals are much more dangerous than mature cattle, which generally have a more relaxed approach to dogs.

Horses can be dangerous to dogs

Loose horses can be among the most dangerous of livestock with dogs. Because of their greater familiarity with humans, they are typically much bolder than cattle, so it’s not so easy to shoo them off. Many years ago, my spaniel survived an attack from a pony. I was walking her to heel on a public footpath through a paddock with grazing horses. One particular animal came after her in determined fashion. If she hadn’t escaped through the hedge, she would have been in trouble. Later, I discovered this pony was a known dog killer.

Common sense

Last month the Government revised The Countryside Code, giving advice to what it calls ‘countryside visitors’. There’s not much in the code that isn’t common sense. If you need to be warned that “traffic on country roads can be dangerous to people and wildlife”, I don’t think you should be venturing out of town.

However, I expect most of us have met aggressive cyclists when walking, so it’s reassuring to know “cyclists must give way to walkers and horse riders on bridleways”. Whether many cyclists are aware of this is doubtful.

Dogs sheep worrying can be shot

I am sure we all know that “a farmer can shoot a dog that is attacking or chasing livestock. They may not be liable to compensate the dog’s owner.” However, I suspect there is widespread ignorance of the fact that, between 1 March and 31 July, you must have your dog on a lead on Open Access land, even if there is no livestock on the land. I walk my dogs regularly on Open Access land and this is a law I do obey.