Fresh warning to those walking dogs near farms

Stock photograph: The dogs chased sheep in a field near Tayinloan.
The distress and exhaustion of being chased by dogs, even if there is no physical contact, can cause sheep to die or miscarry their lambs.

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After a fall in reported incidents of livestock worrying to Police Scotland last year, a spate of attacks in 2021 – including one on sheep on Davaar Island on Monday – has sparked fresh warnings to those visiting the countryside to keep their pets under control.

A new survey of dog owners commissioned by NFU Mutual reveals that 64 per cent of dog owners allow their pets to roam free in the countryside, despite half of owners surveyed admitting their dog doesn’t always come back when called.

The research revealed that 42 per cent of dog owners have been walking their pets more often in the countryside during the pandemic, and that 81 per cent of survey respondents have noticed more people exercising their pets in rural areas.

In Scotland, a joint campaign to tackle livestock attacks by dogs has resulted in the number of attacks reported to Police Scotland decreasing by 13 per cent in 2020.

Mark McBrearty, regional manager for Scotland at NFU Mutual, said: ‘We are encouraged by the decrease in Scotland last year and it is a testament to the proactive work which has been led by police and farming groups.

‘However, horrific incidents continue to cause unbearable suffering to farm animals as well as huge anxiety for farmers and their families as they deal with the aftermath.

‘With more people walking in the countryside as Covid restrictions continue and an increase in dog ownership, we have seen many more brutal attacks resulting in large numbers of sheep being killed and a trail of horrific injuries.

‘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 Scottish Outdoor Access Code or how their dog will behave around farm animals.

‘We want people to enjoy the countryside as it’s so important for people’s wellbeing. It’s vital that dog owners act responsibly and keep dogs on a lead and under control whenever there is a possibility livestock are nearby.’

Police Inspector Alan Dron, National Rural Crime coordinator, said: ‘Through consistently raising awareness of this emotive offence, Police Scotland takes any report of livestock attacks or worrying seriously. This has resulted in more dog attacks being reported and investigated plus, where applicable, owners brought before the courts.

‘Unfortunately too many instances of dogs attacking or worrying livestock still occur and whilst we want everyone to enjoy our countryside, it is important that dog owners or those in charge exercise greater caution when accessing rural areas, particularly if livestock are present.’

Alarmingly, only 40 per cent of the dog owners surveyed by NFU Mutual accepted that their pet could cause the injury or death of a farm animal.

Debs Roberts, a farmer from Auchterarder and co-founder of the Ladies Who Lamb network – a closed Facebook group which provides support to women who keep sheep throughout the UK, said: ‘Dog attacks cause deep anguish to our members. It feels like crisis point at the moment, with daily reports of terribly upsetting incidents where dogs chase and sometimes attack sheep close to lambing. The distress and frustration is something that doesn’t go away, even flashbacks of the horrific injuries and deaths are very traumatic.

‘It’s important that dog owners realise that all breeds, not just the big, fierce-looking ones, are capable of chasing and attacking sheep. Even if a dog doesn’t make physical contact, the distress and exhaustion of the chase can cause sheep to die or miscarry their lambs.

‘We really send a plea to dog owners in the countryside that they keep dogs on leads for the next few months – please follow signs, as they are there to protect you and your dog, and to make your walk safe for all.’

NFU Scotland’s head of policy team, Gemma Cooper, said: ‘It is imperative that dog owners ensure that their pets are controlled in the countryside. We continue to see the devastating impacts of dog attacks on livestock and this crime is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, we know of a number of cases where farmers have been left with no choice but to shoot dogs that have worried livestock.

‘Any dog, including the most placid family pet, can inflict horrific damage to animals such as sheep. Particularly during lambing season, dogs must not be taken into fields of young lambs.

‘Given that livestock attacks and dog fouling are two of the biggest issues that farmers, crofters and landowners face through the irresponsible actions of dog owners, the union is urging Scotland’s MSPs to support and strengthen the measures in the landmark Protection of Livestock Bill, as it makes its way through the Scottish Parliament. NFU Scotland has worked closely with Emma Harper MSP, the member in charge for the Bill which would significantly increase penalties and powers for investigation.

‘NFU Scotland and NFU Mutual are also continuing to make their distinctive, bright yellow livestock worrying signage available to members by contacting their regional managers.’