Farmers are warning that attacks on livestock by dogs are reaching “epidemic proportions” as they brace themselves for a surge in dog attacks heading into peak lambing season.
An increase in dog ownership during the pandemic, especially among inexperienced dog owners, saw the cost of dog attacks on livestock rise 10% last year to £1.3m, according to research published by NFU Mutual.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at the insurer, said: “It’s a critical time in the farming calendar and there is widespread concern as we enter the peak lambing season that there will be a surge in new visitors who are simply unaware of the Countryside Code or how their dog will behave around farm animals.”
The start of lambing season has been fraught for farmer Gordon Wyeth due to attacks on his sheep by pet dogs. He estimates that the number of attacks has doubled since the start of lockdown. “We had a ram that was bitten through the throat and died, we had six lambs [killed], I think that was the next day. And then we had a husky chasing in-lamb ewes, the day after that. One ewe died after that one,” he said. “The problem is reaching epidemic proportions. It’s so much worse than it ever has been.”
The revised Countryside Code, published on 1 April, advises visitors to keep their dogs “under control and in sight” – guidelines that farmers fear do not go far enough in educating dog owners.
It is a criminal offence for a dog to chase or attack livestock, known as “worrying”, and owners are liable for a £1,000 fine, even if the dog appears to cause no harm.
Davidson said: “Even if a dog doesn’t make physical contact, the distress and exhaustion of the chase can cause sheep to die or miscarry.
These attacks cause unbearable suffering to farm animals, as well as huge anxiety for farmers and their families as they deal with the aftermath.”
Wyeth, who is one of the largest sheep farmers in Britain with 12,000 sheep across the south of England, has suffered more than most.
In one attack, in 2016, he lost 116 sheep and lambs, which is thought to be the worst attack on record in the UK and is certainly his biggest single loss in 35 years of sheep farming.
He said: “They were pushed into a gateway in a gully and smothered. We just found a great big heap of dead sheep pushed up against the gate. We never found the dog for that one.
“We were mortified. When you’ve got lots of animals you get used to death and everything else, but it’s a different kind of feeling – it’s emotional when it’s such a waste and the animals are suffering.”
He said signs put up around the farm are often removed by dog walkers and police seem reluctant to take action after attacks.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for rural and wildlife crime, Chief Constable Darren Martland, said police forces were “strengthening their response to rural crime” and urged rural communities to be “our eyes and ears”.
But despite livestock worrying being a crime, Wyeth has been left fighting dog owners both in the civil courts and in his own fields. He said: “You’d be amazed the abuse we get when we pull anyone up about not having their dogs on leads.”
Wyeth say he is a dog lover and owns 10 dogs himself. He blames the owners for attacks, adding: “There isn’t such a thing as a bad dog, it’s just bad owners.”
Dr Jenna Kiddie, head of canine behaviour at the Dogs Trust, warned all dog owners to be on their guard around the sight, sound, smell or even expectation of livestock.
She said: “It is important to remember that chasing is part of a dog’s normal behaviour, and that any dog is capable of chasing, irrelevant of breed, type, age or size.”
But on top of the damage their dogs can do, and the risk of being fined, owners have another reason to be concerned.
The law protects farmers who shoot dogs that are chasing livestock, and Wyeth has shot pet dogs in the past. He said: “It makes you feel sick for weeks, it’s horrible.”
But he added: “We’ve just started lambing so I take my gun with me. I can guarantee you, within the next two or three weeks, a dog will attack my sheep and I will shoot it.”