Dogs worrying livestock – an under reported problem

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory – Miguel de Cervantes

I believe that most small/hobby breeders of pedigree dogs are sensible and responsible.  They look after their dogs and bitches properly, they think carefully about mating, whelp puppies thoughtfully and bring them up to be strong, healthy and socially well adjusted.  Different breeds may have significant differences physically and have a range of temperaments but their fundamental needs are the same.  I am sure the same is true in the way most breeders care for and prepare the owners to which their puppies are entrusted.  They will provide good advice on feeding, exercise, training and rest and indicate that they are available to help on any aspect of their puppy’s health and welfare as well as, if there are serious problems, being prepared to take the puppy back into their ownership and find an alternative home.

Back in the 1970s Angela and I wrote an eight page booklet for new owners which summarised the care required for a Finished Spitz puppy.  It was pretty basic but it was brilliantly rewritten some years ago by Angela and Hannah Thompson and now runs to 36 pages. (https://issuu.com/davidcavill/docs/toveri_finnish_spitz_puppy_pack_1823b3d6cad064 ).  But despite all the care we have taken we missed an important factor so I find we need to add a new paragraph of advice as a result of a special, invitation only, meeting I attended of the All Party Group for the Animal Welfare (APGAW) at the House of Commons a couple of weeks back.  I was invited as Chairman of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council (www.PETbc.org.uk) and administrator of the National Register of Dog Trainers and Behaviourists (www.itraindogs.uk) for it was suggested that members of both organisations might have a contribution to make.

The meeting focused on the damage caused by dogs to livestock – especially sheep but including cattle and, more recently, camelids such as Alpaca and Llama which are becoming popular within the UK (I blame The Archers but there is no doubt that they are attractive beautiful animals so the increase in their numbers is understandable).

I circulated members of both organisations on the basis that although most dog trainers and behaviourists focus on basic domestic problems such as barking, possessiveness, destructiveness and the like.  There would be many who had relevant experience to offer.  I had a very good response but as you would expect, suggested solutions tended towards proper and sensible training during puppyhood rather than throwing up anything radical.

A very high profile meeting

The meeting itself was fascinating and was attended by several MPs and members of the House of Lords (Angela Smith, Rebecca Pow, Neil Parish, James Davies, Bill Wiggins, Damien Hinds, David Hanson and, from the House of Lords, Lord de Maulay,  Lord Trees, Baroness Mallalieu and Baroness Masham), Chairman of the Canine and Sector group, Professor Steve Dean, along with several police officers with experience of the problem and, of course, representatives from concerned organisations such as the Kennel Club, the Ramblers Association, Sheepwatch, the National Sheep Association, Dogs Trust and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home among many others.  I have to admit that I had not realised quite how serious the problem was but all those present were quickly brought up to speed.

For instance, in Wales alone, from where the most reliable statistics have been gathered, 15,000 sheep were killed by dogs in 2016.  And this is just the start.  Sheep are extremely sensitive and if the ewe is pregnant it will often abort any lambs they are carrying.  There is also evidence to suggest that many die several days later from trauma.  And it is not just about dog bites: in Sussex two years ago, 116 sheep died in one attack without a single bite because they crushed each other to death in fear.  There is more: it is not just a question of animal welfare because although you would be right that this is secondary, each sheep’s carcass is worth on average £75.  That is £1.3 million in one year just for Wales.

The meeting was called to discuss ways in which the problem can be alleviated.  There are laws and regulations in place but the main problem is that the attacks happen when no one is around and when no shepherd or farmer is present. It is extremely difficult to catch the dog and even if that is achieved, identifying it and its owner is often impossible.  Terena, Plowright has set up an organisation called Sheepwatch UK as she has become so concerned.  She collects statistics and has found that under reporting of attacks is widespread because farmers have lost faith in the ability of the police to bring anyone to account.  And it is not just the sheep which are at risk: 49 dogs were shot last year and we have to remember that in the circumstances, dogs out of control and if they are running free along roads they can and do cause accidents in which they and others may be maimed or killed.

The real culprits

There was a great deal of discussion during the meeting about the importance of dogs being well-trained, being kept on leads around livestock and farmers being allowed to reroute footpaths so that fields within which sheep are grazing are avoided but in fact, only a very small proportion of attacks occur when the owner is present.  Most owners are very responsible and are almost always very apologetic if their dog slips its lead and chases sheep and are devastated if sheep are harmed. So who are the real culprits?

What became quite clear from the discussion is that most attacks occur along what are described as ‘urban fringes’ which gives a clue as to the source of the problem and perhaps a solution.  There is a great deal of evidence that when dogs are provided with a shelter or kennel within their fenced gardens and are allowed to roam freely and safely while their owners are away from home, there are many who find ways to escape by digging or jumping.  If they escape in towns they are usually picked up by dog wardens or the general public quite quickly, but on the edges of towns close to the countryside, adventure beckons and we cannot blame dogs if they are unable to resist such opportunities.  It may be that owners do not even realise that this is happening and, if they do, especially if they feel the dogs are safely running across local fields, do little about it.  But we know that dogs can travel for miles – and will do so if there is a chance to fulfil their normal behaviour of chasing and bringing down livestock.

As a result of the meeting a small working group of politicians have agreed to meet experienced police forces to fully understand the gaps and problems with the current law; meet the land operators/users who are doing work to tackle the problems or experimenting with schemes to reduce attacks (these include National Parks, local authority representatives, Ramblers Association and so on) and share and collate what has been successful to enable APGAW to establish best practice.  The proposal is to then invite the Minister responsible at The Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to a meeting with all key stakeholders in September when the National Police Report on the most up-to-date statistics is available.

In the meantime, there is something that we can do.  As breeders of pedigree dogs we may only have an input into the lives and owners of about one third of all puppies sold but it would be a start if, when we sell puppies, along with all the other advice which we give, we emphasise to new owners the problems their dogs can cause if they can roam, particularly if they live in a village or ‘urban fringe’ area.

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