Black Labrador Retriever, adult, being walked in field with sheep© FLPA / John Eveson/REX/Shutterstock

Momentum is building to change the law on sheep worrying in a bid to give farmers better protection against out-of-control dogs and irresponsible owners.

East Sussex Labour Co-operative MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, urged the House of Commons on Tuesday (17 April) to update legislation in the wake of a series of attacks.

The MP for Kemptown and Peacehaven wants it to become a legal requirement for dogs in fields containing livestock to be kept on a lead, along with more rigorous enforcement of the law by police to act as a deterrent.

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“There are already some protections, but they are too weak, particularly around this time of year,” he said.

“The number one job of our farmers is to produce safe, sustainable and traceable food for our communities and country. They can do this only if they are able to farm safely and profitably, and livestock worrying is seriously affecting their ability to do that.”

Recorded cases

Since September 2013, there have been 497 recorded cases of livestock worrying in Sussex, including what is believed to be the UK’s worst attack which resulted in the death of 116 sheep in 2016. But many farmers don’t report occurrences, as they don’t believe the police will do anything, said Mr Russell-Moyle.

The recorded financial loss to Sussex farmers, in the area of £66,000, vastly overshadows the fines which amounted to £2,224. “There seems to be a disparity between the punishment and the loss to our farms.”

James Osman, the NFU county adviser for East Sussex, West Sussex and the Isle of Wight who briefed the MP ahead of the debate, said the law was “ancient” and a change was long overdue.

He echoed the call for all dogs to be on leads when in the same enclosure as livestock, rather than the current ambiguous requirement to be “under control”.

Legal obligation

The NFU would also like to see it made a legal obligation for dog owners to report attacks, for the definition of livestock to be widened to include animals such as alpacas and llamas, and to consider allowing farmers to temporarily divert or close a footpath to prevent attacks.

“There’s no one silver bullet – but the problem is getting worse,” said Mr Osman.

The farming industry was doing a great job of educating the public, campaigning and getting the message across – and social media has worked really well in this respect.

“But we need to have the law on our side, so it needs to be updated to recognise the realities of farming today and how the public see and use the countryside.”

Defra minister George Eustice said: “There is a real problem with the lack of responsibility being taken by dog owners, as well as problems being caused by stray dogs and by owners not being in control of the dogs in their care.”