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Industry Strives to Tackle Rising Sheep Worrying Cases

09 June 2015

ANALYSIS - Livestock attacks from out of control dogs have risen sharply across the UK but off-lead access remains a top priority for many of Britain’s dog walkers.

Now thought to cost the UK livestock sector £1.2 million per year, dog attacks have prompted industry debate and several signage campaigns.

For some, the issue appears polarised as one of ‘shoot or not to shoot’ for landowners and on-lead or off-lead for dog walkers.

A key consideration is the importance of off-lead access in the countryside for dog walkers, many of whom specifically want to let their dog loose in open space.

Of recent campaigns, among the most prominent is the Farmers Guardian's ‘take the lead’ campaign in partnership with the National Sheep Association (NSA). The initiative was a reaction to increasing reports of sheep worrying across Britain's countryside.

The message has received support from farming groups across Britain and is simply - dogs should be on leads around livestock.

If not, the stress of being chased by a dog "at large" can cause sheep to abort. Records show physical attacks are often fatal.

Warning walkers with signs on fences and gates designed through collaboration with organisations such as the Kennel Club is how the industry is looking to address the issue head on.

The NFU and the Kennel Club launched new signage at Crufts this year

One complicating factor is the issue of cattle and dogs. Many think a dog on a lead has the potential to cause problems in that inquisitive cows will begin to give walkers unwanted attention.

In conjunction with the Kennel Club, the NFU’s message - launched at Crufts this year - (see image) covers the issues of dog fouling, dogs with sheep and dogs with cattle.

There are, however, problems with permanent signs demanding certain actions for walkers. When stock is rotated or housed through winter, fields are empty and there is a danger for walkers to become indifferent to signs. 

Attacks on the Rise

Incidents of attacks have doubled in the last three years, with sheep farmers most exposed to the emotional and financial strain of dog attacks.

Quoting the “quite shocking” figures, Farmers Guardian journalist, Olivia Midgley, told a sheep industry event last month that over 2000 attacks were recorded in 2013/14.

Olivia has fronted the ‘take the lead’ campaign, aimed at reducing dog attacks on livestock farms through calling for more responsible dog ownership.

She told NSA Wales that 211 attacks killed livestock in 2013.

Police records show the worst hit areas for sheep worrying are Northern Ireland, Devon, West Yorkshire, Scotland and Gwent. According to a Farmers Guardian survey, 42 per cent of dog owners thought their dog would chase livestock.

“A lot of farmers aren’t reporting attacks,” she said. “We (Farmers Guardian) and the NSA believe the figures could be a lot higher.

“The message to dog walkers is simple - please keep your dog on a lead.”

Dog attacks on livestock have doubled over the last three years

And while the simple ‘take the lead’ message strives to minimise stress on both sheep farmers and dog owners, for some, the issue is more nuanced.

Wording Matters

Legal language states dogs must be under “close control”, which is open for interpretation and depends on circumstances, says Stephen Jenkinson, the Kennel Club’s access advisor.

“’Close control’ and ‘at large’ are different whether on the moors or in a two acre field,” said Mr Jenkinson, who noted Natural England figures showing half of walkers now have dogs, of which 85 per cent go to the countryside for off-lead access.

“Dog owners don’t want conflict or a threat of dogs being shot or shouted at. Compared to ten years ago we know a lot more about what dog walkers want.”

In his view, signs can be effective if “updated and rotated” to stay relevant.

Ultimately, a good sign is one that allows dog owners to make “better and more informed choices” about putting the dog on a lead.

“Figures on dog walking are not entirely precise,” he added. “Stray dogs can attack animals and there are instances where a new dog in a nearby village runs into fields – this shouldn’t be confused with dog walking.”

Success Story

Kevin Harrison, a sheep farmer in the South West of England, has a wealth of first-hand experience of public access and sheep. He has footpaths running through or adjacent to 22 of his 28 fields and is grateful for the “relentless” work of the Farmers Guardian in raising awareness.

“I love dogs and I don’t want to shoot them, but if I had to protect a flock of sheep – I can do it,” he told the NSA Wales seminar last month.

“Rules in towns and cities are getting tougher with fouling rules and other laws and people want to let dogs off leads at the weekend”.

In his view, being aggressive and insuring animals does not spread the right message.

Signs are put up on the Harrison farm, which lies between Bristol and Bath, and then taken down in winter when stock aren't grazing. 

“Aggression doesn’t work, you need to get dog walkers on your side, he said. “Educating dog owners is one of the ways forward. Insurance may lead to a tendency for walkers to think, ‘there’s no problem – its insured’.

“We had several attacks over a number of years and, touch wood, we haven’t had any recently.”

Top picture courtesy of Farmers Guardian

Michael Priestley

Michael Priestley
News Team - Editor

Mainly production and market stories on ruminants sector. Works closely with sustainability consultants at FAI Farms.

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