Dog owners warned 'no excuse' for sheep worrying

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Image caption,
Sheep have been left distressed, injured and sometimes killed in recent attacks in Scotland.

Dog owners have been warned there is "no excuse" for allowing pets to worry sheep.

A campaign has been launched in Scotland, urging owners to take responsibility for the distress their pets can cause to livestock.

Last year more than 80 incidents led to court action, but police believe the problem is under-reported.

Sheep have been left injured, permanently disfigured and in some cases killed in recent attacks.

'Not the dog's fault'

Campaigners say worrying incidents also take a toll on farmers - who on some occasions have shot rogue dogs.

Farmer Bob Barr lost a number of sheep on his Pentland Hills farm after a dog chased them into a reservoir where they drowned.

He told Good Morning Scotland: "I've shot dogs in the past, I hate doing it. It's not the dog's fault, the dogs are the innocent party in all of this, it's just doing what comes naturally to it. It's the person in control of the dog.

"Losing any sheep is not good for our business obviously, especially when we're trying to breed our own stock to follow on.

"Years and years of breeding can suddenly be lost by the loss of two or three animals.

"It's also the time it takes - I have to go and get my gun out the cabinet, get away out on the quad bike. It's all time you could have been doing other things.

"Our industry is very weather dependent and daylight hours lost is a big hit."

Ignorance of the law

Named "Your Dog - Your Responsibility", the campaign was launched by the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime (Sparc), which includes Police Scotland, NFU Scotland, Scottish Land and Estates and NFU Mutual. 

The campaign aims to improve understanding of who can be prosecuted if a dog worries farm animals.

Dog owners are culpable even in incidents where:

  • a dog has been let off a lead and not obeyed commands
  • someone else was in charge of the dog at the time
  • the dog was left alone at home or in gardens, but escaped
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Attacks on sheep in Scotland have risen in recent years with farmers blaming "irresponsible" pet owners.

Sparc chairman Ch Supt John McKenzie said: "Last year there was an excess of 81 incidents that were pursued through the courts.

"But the impact is far greater - the impact is on farmers in terms of the loss of their livestock, the impact is on dog owners.

"There are incidents whereby owners have indicated the dog is under control through voice command or through whistles.

"The legislation is clear, the dog doesn't need to attack the animal, it just needs to worry livestock."

What happens if my dog worries a sheep?

Dog owners are required to keep their animal on a short leash or under close control if they go into a field with sheep.

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) defines keeping pets "under close control" as close at heel and responsive to your commands.

Failure to do so can incur a number of consequences.

There are financial penalties which can be imposed under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act.

Local councils have the power to impose dog control notices on dog owners if their pet has been involved in previous incidents.

In worst case scenarios, owners may lose their dogs. The SOAC reminds dog owners that in some cases a farmer has the right to shoot a dog that is attacking their livestock.

The campaign comes amid concerns that sheep worrying may be under-reported in Scotland by 50%.

The National Farmer's Union carried out a survey of 1,002 pet owners in the UK in 2018 - it suggested that 80% exercised their dogs in countryside while 60% let their dogs off their leash.

It also found that 7% admitted their dog had chased livestock in the past.

Ch Supt McKenzie continued: "Evidence demonstrates there has been an under-reporting of this issue for a number of years and that's what this campaign also aims to raise awareness [of].

"The ultimate penalty could be that someone may lose their dog as a result of their failure to keep close control.

"It is the responsibility of the dog owner to ensure that they control of their dog on agricultural land. There's no excuse."