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THIS time last year sheep farmer Gordon Wyeth made a horrific discovery at his farm, near Chichester.
He walked down to check on his pregnant ewes to find 116 dead – all herded into a tight group against a gate bordering woodland.
Running away in panic – most likely from a dog – they had all died from shock or crush injuries.
At this time of year when spring lambing is underway and hikers and dog walkers start to venture out for countryside walks, sheep farmers are on high alert. They fear dog attacks on livestock that can wreak havoc on their livelihoods and sense of wellbeing.
There are indications that these sorts of attacks – livestock worrying – are on the rise. Last year NFU Mutual estimated that more than 18,500 livestock had been killed or injured in dog attacks in the previous 12 months. According to claims data, injuries cost farmers £1.1 million – up 35 per cent on the previous year.
The National Sheep Association also believes dog attacks on sheep are becoming more frequent. It estimates that 20 to 25 per cent of its members have experienced dog attacks on flocks.
For the rural crime team at North Wales Police, livestock worrying has become a ‘bread and butter’ issue. It started recording attacks in September 2013 and figures show there have been some 409 attacks since then.
Now four other police forces – North Yorkshire, Sussex, Devon and Cornwall, and Hertfordshire – are reviewing their crime records and will file a report to Defra on the scale of the problem this September.
The parliamentary group for animal welfare recently heard evidence about this problem from farming organisations, police representatives and small animal charities.
SheepWatch UK – a voluntary body that is encouraging farmers to report all cases of dogs worrying sheep – provided MPs with an estimate that some 15,000 sheep are killed by pet dogs every year. The cost of this – in terms of value of sheep, veterinary management, disposal of bodies and lost income (loss of lambs) – is estimated to be more than £2 million.
But there is also the emotional cost – it is distressing for farmers to deal with any animal that has been ravaged by another. It's also distressing – and depressing – for any vet called out to assess the damage, treat or euthanase any sheep involved.
But what is the role of the vet here? On the whole, vets aren't called out to treat individual sick sheep. It is common for farmers to take the view that a vet bill is not worth the price of a sheep (the value of a standard commercial sheep is £100 to £150). Specialist sheep vets tend to offer preventive care – vaccination, nutrition, flock management - rather than sole animal management.
The veterinary profession today doesn't have the regular contact with sheep farmers that it would have enjoyed 50 years ago. In contrast, however, there are a huge number of practices that only deal with small animals, so perhaps there is a much better opportunity for vets to influence change here – in influencing dog owners.
What many dog owners don't understand is that a dog doesn't have to bite a sheep to kill it. Many will die of shock two or three days after being chased. If they are pregnant, they are likely to abort their lambs. It's this sort of information that vets can helpfully pass on to dog owners. They must be warned of the dangers their dogs can be to sheep.
Dog attacks are a notable problem in areas where country meets town – the urban fringe. There tends to be two routes to attacks. Attacks by accompanied dogs (the owner is out on a walk with their dog[s] but they have no control) or unaccompanied dogs (these escape or stray from their homes). It is believed most occur due to the latter.
There is no particular breed that is more likely to attack sheep. Figures collated by police in North Wales show the highest number of attacks are by huskies and German shepherd dogs but lurchers and Labradors are not far behind.
Sheep worrying is dangerous for the dogs too. Under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, it is a crime to allow a dog to worry – that means chase or bite – livestock on agricultural land. A farmer is allowed to protect their animals by shooting the dog and are required to report the fact to the police within 48 hours (Animals Act 1971).
While no farmer wants to shoot a dog, many feel they have no choice – once a dog is in attack mode and out of the control of its owner.
The National Sheep Association says farmers have little faith that reporting dog attacks to the police will lead to any action – only a third of members report dog attacks to the police.
It wants to change that and to see the police take sheep worrying more seriously. Ideally, it would like to see the introduction of a national reporting scheme and tougher penalties for dog owners – four figure fines plus costs.
The Kennel Club points out that increasing restrictions on dog walkers cannot help the situation – as dog walkers are banned from park spaces, they are forced out to the urban fringes where the possibilities of attacks are higher.
It also says farmers need to do their bit by ensuring their farmland boundaries are as secure as possible, walking paths are livestock-free and by using signage to clearly indicate where dogs need to be on leads.
There is certainly work needed by all parties to reduce the incidence of livestock worrying – by dog owners in demonstrating responsible dog management, by farmers in clearly indicating safe access routes across their publicly accessible land and by police logging incidents and helping to bring prosecutions.
Vets can help in two ways. First, by encouraging farmers to report attacks to the police or SheepWatch and insist on getting a crime reference number. Figures will mean these crimes will become more visible and could help bring about pressure for change – in terms of recognition of the problem, more prosecutions and possibly even legislative reform.
Second, vets have an important role in seizing moments to educate dog owners about responsible dog handling when out on country walks. Vets who work in semi-rural or mixed practices will be important in helping protect the health and welfare of both animals involved.
This year Mr Wyeth is taking further precautions to protect his sheep. He has introduced two male alpacas to his 50-acre field to guard 500 ewes in the hope that they will defend them against dog attacks. It would be good if Mr Wyeth had more than alpacas on his side.