Rise in dog ownership in lockdown blamed for 'horrific' attacks on sheep
- Credit: Jane Deville
Livestock worrying is on the rise across the East of England as dog ownership rockets during lockdown, new figures suggest.
Farm insurer NFU Mutual estimates dog attacks on farm animals in the region has cost more than £130,000 as the pandemic leads to a surge in pet ownership - and in visitors to the countryside.
Sergeant Brian Calver on Suffolk Constabulary's rural team says his force has seen a rise in cases since the first lockdown - some of which was attributable to an increase in footfall in the countryside during the lockdowns.
"Many have been enjoying walks in the wonderful Suffolk countryside and doing so in a responsible manner but sadly, as with many aspects of life, there are a few dog owners that have not done so as responsibly as they could," he said.
"We've seen high numbers of sheep killed and injured in recent months, as well as the unseen harm of abortions caused by these offences. Just being chased along can cause sufficient distress for a sheep to die. Many of these sheep carry significant injuries until they are found by their owners, undoubtedly experiencing high levels of pain and suffering, all of which is unnecessary."
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The Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 makes it an offence to allow your dog to worry livestock. Although that includes cattle, sheep goats, swine, horses, fowl, turkeys, geese and ducks, the majority of cases involve sheep, said Sgt Calver, who called on owners to ensure their dogs are kept on leads.
NFU Mutual said there were growing concerns that the spring lockdown will see an influx of walkers unfamiliar with the countryside code and unaware of how their new dogs will behave around livestock.
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This was creating stress among sheep farmers as they enter the peak lambing period when pregnant ewes and new born lambs are vulnerable to attack.
NFU Mutual recently commissioned a survey of dog owners which showed that 64% let their pets roam free in the countryside - with more than half admitting their dog doesn’t always return when called.
It also showed that 42% of dog owners were walking their pets more often in the countryside during the pandemic, with 81% noticing more people exercising their pets in rural areas.
“With more people walking in the countryside as Covid restrictions continue and an increase in dog ownership, we have seen horrific attacks resulting in large numbers of sheep being killed and a trail of horrific injuries,” said NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist Rebecca Davidson.
“These attacks cause unbearable suffering to farm animals as well as huge anxiety for farmers and their families as they deal with the aftermath.
“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 countryside 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 at all times whenever there is a possibility livestock are nearby.”
Among the dog owners surveyed, only 40% recognised that their pet could cause the injury or death of a farm animal.
“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," said Ms Davidson.
"It’s important that owners realise that all dog breeds, not just the big, fierce looking ones, are capable of attacking livestock, or chasing them.”
The pandemic also appears to have changed dog owners' attitudes to witnessing dog attacks with just 33% saying they would report it to police or a local farmer.
In 2020, the cost of dog attacks on UK livestock reached an estimated £1.3m, said NFU Mututal. The worst-affected region by cost was the North East, where farm animals worth £240,000 were savaged by dogs. The next most seriously-affected areas were the Midlands, South West and Wales.
NFU Mutual advises dog owners always to keep dogs on the lead when walking in rural areas where livestock are kept - but to let go of the lead if chased by cattle.
Dog owners can also find advice here.