Dog attacks against sheep are on the rise, according to latest figures from the National Sheep Association. Investigations Reporter RUBY KITCHEN finds out more as one farming family is hit for the sixth time in a year.
A farming family from Harrogate have spoken out about the devastating impact of dog attacks on their livelihood after losing 10 per cent of their flock in recent months.
Young couple Chris and Ashlea Gill, from Beckwithshaw, are third generation farmers to keep livestock on land at Hole House Farm.
And, having lost six sheep in recent months – all with lamb – they say each attack is heartbreaking.
“We’ve lost about 10 per cent of our total flock,” said Chris. “All killed in dog attacks since September.
“Mostly, they were killed outright, but we had to have one put down.
“We are trying to run a business. We’ve had to build everything up from scratch. And everything we earn, we spend on stock. Just to lose them like this.”
The impact, say the family, is devastating.
“These aren’t just sheep in fields,” said his wife Ashlea, 26. “It’s somebody’s livelihood that this ‘lovely family pet’ is decimating.
“All our animals, in a way, are pets. We don’t have many, and we try and look after them.”
The first attack was in September last year.
“I went round to check the sheep and noticed there were three missing,” said Chris, 29. “When I found them, they had their throats ripped out.
“The next time, I saw a sheep unsteady on her feet and, when I checked, she had a huge chunk taken out of her neck. We had to have her put down.
“The time after that, I went to get a sheep back as it had strayed from our land. I found it dead by the wall.”
Each attack is heartbreaking to deal with, he says. But last week, when he found a dog standing over a dead sheep, with blood smeared around its mouth, was the worst.
“I heard shouting and jumped off my tractor, ran straight over,” he said. “I saw it then, standing over the sheep with a mouth full of blood.
“It wouldn’t move, even when I approached. The sheep was already dead.
“With a dog like that, you just don’t know if it will try and rip your arm off. It’s a danger to society. It has a big impact. Thousands of pounds, that’s a lot to farms like ours.
“You see it in the papers – dogs ripping kids to pieces. It’s just a matter of time. We have three young kids, they play out all the time. What if it happens when the kids are outside? “Once they get the taste for it they wont stop.”
The Gills, with their three young daughters Blossom aged seven, Dahlia, four and Violet two, took on the working of the farm from Chris’s dad some years ago.
They keep sheep, ducks, pigs, Angus cattle, and run a meat delivery business from the farm. Chris also works in tractor and machinery repairs and spends a lot of time visiting other farms.
“It happens all the time in this area,” he said. “Dog owners have to be responsible. Use common sense.
“With the weather last year, the rain and the cold snap, it’s hard enough to make a living.
“It’s vital that you keep your dog on a lead around livestock. If a dog is on our land, worrying our sheep, we can legally shoot them.
“Of course we don’t want to. We just want people to be aware that dogs can kill livestock.”
l 79% of farmers in 2013 said their sheep had been attacked
l 58% said it was a persistent problem
l Most common cost to a farmer of a single attack is £200 to £399
l 35% of attacks led to the death of at least one sheep
l Farmers said main cause of worrying was dog walkers failing to keep dogs on leads
l Followed by walkers assumption that their pet won’t attack livestock
l Usually (97%) the dog owner was local rather than a visitor
l Where a farmer knew what happened to the dog afterwards, 29% were reported as destroyed and 62% of those were legally shot by the farmer
l Of the cases reported, 77% were not the first incident experienced on the farm
l Nearly half of all attacks reported occurred in winter
POLICE BEAR WITNESS
“Every year I receive reports of sheep being worried by dogs. Recently I was called to a really bad case where over 15 lambs were killed and several ewes injured. Two dogs were responsible, they had strayed from their home and were shot by the owner of the sheep. Most of the livestock worrying incidents I’ve been contacted about over the past couple of years have involved dogs from Nidderdale households. These cases cause a lot of anguish for all involved and the repercussions are serious. Livestock represents a farmer’s livelihood. Apart from its intrinsic value, a dead farm animal negates a lot of hard work by its owner. Dog owners will have to compensate the farmer and the dog may well be destroyed. Please take great care to ensure your dog cannot stray from your home and to keep your dog under proper control at all times when out in the countryside. This is particularly relevant at lambing time.”
PC Bill Hickson, covering Lower Nidderdale, Nidd Valley and Pateley Bridge.
Legally, a farmer can shoot a dog which is attacking or chasing farm animals on his land. Under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, if a dog worries sheep on agricultural land, the person in charge of the dog is guilty of an offence. And, under the Animals Act 1971, there is a legal defence if the farmer can prove that he acted for the protection of any livestock, if the dog is worrying or is about to worry and there was no other reasonable way to prevent it, and that he reported it to police within 48 hours.
‘SHEEP WORRYING IS AN ISSUE’
“Sheep worrying is always an issue, and I’m certainly aware of a number of incidents in Harrogate in recent months. Sometimes it’s on public land, sometimes it’s dogs that have escaped. We’re not blaming individuals. But everybody that owns a dog needs to be aware that they can worry sheep. Everybody says their dog doesn’t do it. But somebody’s dog is. A lot of owners don’t know what their dog is up to. That their quiet, domestic pet is actually worrying sheep. It’s what your dog is doing when you can’t see it that is the problem. Please be responsible. Try and think. Keep dogs on a lead. It’s a huge cost to farmers and upsets them on a personal level. You don’t look after a flock of sheep without becoming bound to them. You care about them. Farmers do have rights to shoot dogs. It’s not something that they like to do, it’s not something they enjoy doing. It’s a matter of last resort. But there’s a fair amount of evidence that if a dog has done it once, it has a tendency to do it again.”
Paul Turner, NFU secretary for the Harrogate District.
‘IT’S EVERY DOG’S INSTINCT TO CHASE’
“Sheep are valuable assets and any harm to them harms a farmer’s livelihood. It is every dog’s instinct to chase, even if they are usually obedient and good with other animals, and chasing can do serious damage to sheep, even if the dog doesn’t catch them. We really want walkers to enjoy the countryside and feel confident about their responsibilities to farmers and livestock, and encouraging them to put their dog on a lead will solve a lot of the problem.”
Phil Stocker, National Sheep Association (NSA) chief executive.