Sheep worrying – a growing problem?

Do farmers have the right to shoot dogs that stray among their livestock? Mark Rowe examines the law and provides a case study of an incident in Wales.

 

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When Dash, a young German wire-haired pointer, belonging to Fiona and Graham Burnett, disappeared while being exercised near their home in Powys, his owners initially thought he was lost and would find his way home shortly. But later that day a friend reported hearing two gunshots and they were subsequently contacted by police, who told them Dash had been shot by a farmer.

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The farmer, Stephen Jones, says Dash had harassed livestock in three fields, was between the legs of cattle, and he had no choice but to shoot him. “The cattle were really frightened. My concern was that the dog had them penned against a fence with a 20ft [6m] drop the other side. I felt we didn’t have long before they pushed through. Some of them were with calf. I’m saddened by what happened. It was a last resort to shoot him.” 

Powys police have confirmed that they are not pursuing the incident. Meanwhile, Mrs Burnett, who says that her dog was well trained, believes Dash’s death shines a light on the law regarding the rights of farmers to shoot dogs.

“The police officer told us that farmers are allowed to shoot dogs,” said Mrs Burnett. “I was in shock, so for a couple of days I accepted that. But matters are rarely so black and white.”

Mrs Burnett identified the key laws relating to the issue. “Farmers can only shoot the dog as a last resort,” she said. “They don’t have carte blanche. Farmers can be prosecuted and be sued. By law, farmers can shoot a dog on their land if it is worrying livestock, so long as they have tried all other reasonable means to stop the worrying first.”

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) adopts a firm line on shooting, believing it best to avoid confrontation. “Our advice is simply not to shoot dogs,” said the BASC’s Simon Clarke. “We’re all part of the same tapestry in the countryside and it’s better if we can get on with our neighbours. There are some irresponsible dog owners out there. If you have lambs and a dog is in among them, you can understand how a farmer will feel frustrated. 

“But it’s a grey area. There’s no carte blanche for people to take the law into their own hands and shoot the dog. You’re opening yourself up to legal action.”

From the farmer’s perspective, the concern is injury to their livestock. According to the Farmers’ Union of Wales, hundreds of sheep are mauled or killed by dogs each year in Wales. “There are real consequences and concerns for farmers’ livelihoods if sheep are killed or livestock miscarries,” said a spokesman. The union has received reports of farmers being physically threatened when they have asked owners to keep dogs under control.

The problem has got worse since the implementation of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW), also known as the Right to Roam, over land that is now designated as open access land. “There’s a lack of clarity in the law,” the spokesman added. “The laws say dogs must be under close control [on public paths on farm land], but CROW says the dog must remain on the lead [on open access land when near livestock and between 1 March and 31 July when ground birds are nesting]. The law should state that dogs should be on the lead at all times when near livestock.”

Mrs Burnett feels that the Countryside Code, which outlines responsibilities for those in the countryside, should be revised. She points to a single sentence in the code: ‘By law, farmers are entitled to destroy a dog that injures or worries their animals.’ “That is such an over- simplification as to be dangerously misleading,” she said.
Even adding the words ‘as a last resort’ would help.”

Natural England, however, said it was satisfied with the wording and has no plans to revise it. The NFU also feels satisfied that farmers fully understand the law. “Shooting dogs is not an action that farmers take lightly,” said an NFU spokesman. “We encourage members to act only where there are no other practical means of preventing the worrying and there is immediate danger to livestock.” The Countryside Council For Wales, which helped draw up the code, said the wording of the whole code was due for reassessment, but that the sentence had been approved by lawyers and plain English experts. 

“The reason for including the sentence about the farmers shooting dogs was to warn members of the public that it could happen, not to tell farmers what their rights are,” said a spokesman for the council.

Some observers feel the starkness of the phrase may inadvertently help avoid confrontation. “I get the feeling there’s a misconception about the law among the general public,” said the BASC’s Simon Clarke. “In a sense, that suits farmers.

If there’s a dog causing problems, the threat of having it shot is more likely to act as a deterrent.” 

This article appeared in Issue 44 of BBC Countryfile Magazine – published in March 2011

THE LAW

Under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 it is a criminal offence for a dog to be
at large
, (ie not on a lead) or otherwise under close control, in a field of sheep. Working dogs are excepted.

Farmers can be prosecuted under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 unless they have ”lawful excuse”, which is the right to protect property if it is at immediate risk of damage or loss, so long as the action is proportional to the risk. 

The Animals Act 1971 permits the owner of a dog to bring civil proceedings for the loss of a dog or vets’ fees.

Section 9 the Animals Act provides a defence to such civil claims. A farmer can shoot a dog but only if the dog is worrying livestock, or is about to worry livestock and there are no other reasonably practical means of ending or preventing the worrying.

The livestock must be in immediate need of protection. Farmers cannot rely on this defence if they shoot a dog that is leaving the vicinity having already worried the livestock, or where the dog has been caught by its owner.

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The National Farmers’ Union Business Guide 86, Livestock Worrying and Control of Dogs, stresses that shooting a dog should be a last resort: “You should consider whether there are any other options reasonably available to you – for example does firing a warning shot scare the dog away? Can you get near enough to the dog to catch it without putting yourself in danger?”