Adam Henson’s farm talk: Sheep worrying

Sheep worrying has always been a problem for farmers and now it is worse than ever, but what can be done?

Gloucestershire floods
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Everyone seems to agree that sheep worrying is on the increase. Last year there were about 700 reported cases of dogs chasing or attacking livestock in the UK but there’s concern among farmers that the problem is actually much worse. Some wildlife crime officers think many incidents are going unreported, and it’s easy to see why farmers and dog owners might deal with a particular incident privately, without involving the police.

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Nevertheless, the situation is so bad that the National Sheep Association (NSA) (www.nationalsheep.org.uk) has set up a dedicated hotline to monitor the number of attacks. Most people think that only sheepdogs race off towards flocks of ewes and lambs in the fields but it’s amazing how many pet dogs will run after farm animals just for the sake of chasing them. Any breed, no matter how large or small, can revert to its primitive, wolf-like instinct.

A few years ago somebody was walking a normally docile pet boxer on my farm and it ripped several of my sheep to pieces. Some time later, two small terriers also got into a flock and killed three of them outright, with the others so badly injured they had to be put down.

It’s horrific for everyone concerned and often the dog owner is distraught, unable to believe that their sweet, little family pet could turn into such a ferocious beast. The truth is that once a dog experiences the thrill of chasing sheep or gets its first taste of blood, it becomes very hard to resist. I know a bit about the subject because I’m a dog owner myself. I’ve got sheepdogs but I’ve also got a gun dog at home and I make sure I’ve got my wits about me when we’re out together, because she’s quite keen on sheep. So much so that she’ll even help me catch a lamb if the need arises. The distress and harm to the livestock is truly shocking but what adds insult to injury is the financial loss. A lamb for the table is worth about £80, a good quality breeding ewe can sell for £160 and a top breeding ram is around £500. Seen in that light, sheep worrying is as serious as stealing.

New Countryside code
Luckily, the vast majority of dog owners are responsible people and use common sense when they take their pet on farmland walks or go on holiday to the countryside. But there’s a difficult balancing act between upholding people’s right to roam and explore rural Britain on one hand, while protecting the lives of sheep and the livelihood of the farmer on the other. I know it’s something that dog charities, walkers’ groups and landowners take very seriously.

Earlier this year, the Countryside Code (www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/enjoying/countrysidecode/default.aspx) was updated to give walkers advice on rights of way and dog control. It was good to hear that Natural England, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and The Ramblers had worked together on revamping the code and encouraging more people to read it.

In simple terms, the guidelines are easy to follow; if you’re walking through a field or near a farm, then you must keep your dog on a lead and under control. The penalties for anyone convicted of allowing their dog to attack sheep are pretty hefty: a maximum fine of £1,000 or even imprisonment. However, I doubt many dog owners realise that if, as a last resort, a farmer shoots a troublesome dog, he or she is perfectly within the law if firing to protect their livestock from danger.

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So perhaps the answer lies in doing more to help prevent repeat attacks. Troublesome dogs could be rehomed in an area where there are no livestock, or undergo professional animal training so that they don’t give in to the temptation to chase sheep.