Farming: Sheep worrying suggests dog owners need leash

IN A previous life as part of my efforts to become a local authority councillor, I would knock on people’s doors and then try to persuade them to vote for me; a difficult enough task which was always made harder when I heard a doggy growl behind the door.
A canine farm worker on duty  a welcome presence on hills. Picture: GettyA canine farm worker on duty  a welcome presence on hills. Picture: Getty
A canine farm worker on duty  a welcome presence on hills. Picture: Getty

This was then followed by the sound of paws scratching the door and the owner shouting “down Rex”.

My route to safety was being contemplated when the door would burst open and the dog would bounce out. With one giant bound, it would jump up on me and slobber about my neck, with the owner insisting – as they always did – “he is just being friendly”.

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Other than the slobber I was unscathed but “he was just being friendly” is, I am told, the most common excuse used by owners of dogs caught worrying sheep. And worryingly, this problem for sheep farmers continues to rise as so-called friendly dogs can soon spook a flock of sheep and, before you know it, their deep-rooted genetics kick in and they bring a sheep down by going for its neck.

A recent survey conducted by the National Sheep Association (NSA) revealed more than half their respondents described sheep worrying by dogs as a “persistent problem”.

Note it is not a one-off problem or even an occasional one, it is a constant concern particularly for those farming within a mile or two of a town where dogs are often just let loose by their owners.

The chief executive of NSA, Phil Stalker, commented it was every dog’s instinct to chase, even if they were usually obedient and good with other animals, and chasing can do serious damage to sheep, even if the dog doesn’t catch them. The survey revealed the cost to a farmer of a single attack was between £200 and £399 but it included some reports of attacks causing up to £10,000 of damage. The survey also uncovered the statistic that 96 per cent of attacks led to at least one sheep being stressed or injured and 35 per cent of attacks led to the death of at least one sheep.

While the bloodied carcases providing all too visible evidence of the damage a dog can do to a sheep, there is also, as Stalker observed, the unseen damage.

Almost two thirds of sheep farmers reported what they called “invisible” damage such as lower conception rates at mating time and abortion in pregnant sheep.

Worrying goes on all year but there are specific problems at lambing time.

The question is what is being done about it? Sheep worrying seems to be low on police force priorities A recent case of sheep worrying which was reported to me resulted in several dead hoggs and the rest of the flock spooked.

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The response from the police was that all their available man and woman power was deployed at a student charity event which had priority.

By the time the boys in blue had sorted out the students, the blood had been washed from the jaws of the killers and in the owner’s eyes the hounds were “just being friendly”.

This past week, a group of rural organisations that are more often at odds with one another put out a plea to dog owners to keep their animals out of fields where there are lambs and at this time of year to keep their pets on short leads.

More optimistically in my opinion, they urged dog owners to keep their dogs at heel and stated the dogs should be “responsive to your commands”.

I thought back to my various episodes with Rex and the many other dogs I had met on the doorstep who were oblivious to their owners’ commands.

Then I compared the fact is that every sheep in the country now has an identification number while dogs are unregulated.

At the same time, every sheep farmer is designated as the responsible keeper while no dog owner appears to have much in the way of responsibility for the actions of their pets.

Perhaps one of the best methods of getting some control over the worrying problem would be to consider returning to requiring a dog licence and not one that cost ten bob, which for younger readers equalled 50p.