Tips on staying legal when tackling sheep worrying by dogs

Livestock worrying by dogs is estimated to cost the industry at least £1.2m a year. Paul Spackman discovers how farmers should tackle the problem and stay within the law.

Livestock worrying is a problem on many farms throughout the year, but especially during spring and summer when fields are full of and ewes about to give birth.

See also Newborn lambs savaged to death in dog attack

Worrying covers anything from over-excited dogs chasing livestock to full-on attacks, but also applies if the dog is off the lead and not under close control in a field containing sheep. The results can be costly in terms of animals killed, stress and increased risk of abortions.

Below is some key advice from a range of sources about what farmers can do.

What should I do if I see sheep being worried?

There’s no simple answer, as it depends on the individual circumstances, such as breed of dog, temperament, whether the owner is present etc. If a dog is chasing or attacking livestock, you’ll want to get it away as quickly as possible, but beware of the dog turning aggressive. Try distracting the dog from a safe distance to draw its attention from the sheep first. Where possible, gather evidence of the attack.

What if I only see the aftermath?

If you suspect sheep have been worried or attacked by a dog(s) it is vital you record any evidence and report it to the police.

What evidence do I need?

If possible, video the attack and aftermath or document it through photographs. Such evidence will be vital if the case ends up in court and could help identify the dog’s owner or those responsible for it. Take photographs of injuries to sheep and any ewes that prolapse or abort. It may be worth notifying your vet of any abortions.

Keep a record of dates, times, locations, witnesses and anything said by either party.

Is it worth calling the police?

Yes, call the police even if you are sceptical of their likely response. Not reporting incidents means the scale of the problem is underestimated.

In some cases a visit from the local police may be enough to persuade the dog owner to control their dog in future. Police can also initiate criminal proceedings if necessary. The occupier of the land and/or owner of the livestock can also bring criminal proceedings without police support.

Where nobody is present who admits to owning the dog or in charge of it, the police may seize and detain it until the owner comes forward.

Can the owner be prosecuted or dog put down?

It is a criminal offence to let a dog worry sheep under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act. The dog’s owner and/or the person responsible for it at the time of the worrying could be guilty of a criminal offence, with a maximum fine of £1,000.

Magistrates will be reluctant to order a dog to be destroyed, but they have the power to do so where deemed necessary – for example, where an owner has ignored a previous court order or repeated requests from a farmer to keep his dog under control.

Farmers may be able to sue a dog owner for compensation under the Animals Act 1971 where a dog is caught worrying livestock.

Should I warn the owner directly?

In some cases, talking to the dog owner at the time of the incident or at their home may be enough for them to change behaviour. However, some farmers may feel uncomfortable approaching an owner directly, so in such cases it is better to report the incident to the local police or council dog warden (if there is one).

Can I block or divert paths to prevent the problem?

In short, no. Farmers cannot close or obstruct public rights of way, as that is a criminal offence and local authorities can demand any obstruction is removed. However, farmers can apply to their local authority to divert a path, either permanently or temporarily.

In some cases it may be possible to fence alongside paths to stop dogs and owners straying off the path, but this is costly.

Are signs any use?

Signs urging people to keep to paths and keep dogs on a lead may be enough to remind some dog owners.

Personalising signs might get the message across more effectively than simply telling people to stay on the path or put their dog on a lead. For example, explain why people should keep dogs on leads and explain how it has affected your farm.

Inevitably there will be those that ignore signs or have not followed a public right of way in the first place. National Sheep Association surveys have found that more than half of worrying incidents occur away from a public footpath – the 2014 survey shows 60% of attacks occurred in private, enclosed fields with no footpath.

What about open-access land?

On areas of open-access land (for example, mountains and moorland) or registered common land covered by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, there is scope for landowners to close dog access to areas containing sheep for up to six weeks, once a year. The Act also requires the public to keep dogs on a fixed lead of 2m or less near livestock.

While public-access rights are different in Scotland, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 prevents the public going on to land with a dog that is not under “proper control” – such control varies depending on the situation and is outlined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

What about shooting dogs?

The law around this is very complex (see Section 9 of the Animals Act 1971) and farmers need a strong, lawful excuse for shooting any dog. It should only be a last resort for protecting livestock where “there are no other reasonable means of ending or preventing the worrying”.

Farmers will have to show they acted in the belief that sheep were in immediate need of protection, and that shooting the dog was reasonable given all relevant circumstances. Police must be notified within 48 hours if a dog is shot.

Failure to stay within the law could result in the farmer facing charges, either by causing criminal damage to the dog, a firearms offence, or a fine and/or possible imprisonment under the Animal Welfare Act.

More information

This article was put together with help from the National Sheep Association and Tim Ryan at Warners Solicitors

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