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Sheep Worrying and your rights

View profile for Fiona Fawcett
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According to Sheep Watch UK approximately 15,000 sheep are killed each year by pet dogs. These attacks are devastating for the farmer who lose their livestock, their impending offspring and their future income. With dog attacks estimated to cost the farming industry 1.3 million a year and with the approach of lambing time, it is important that both dog owners and farmers are aware of their rights and responsibilities.
It is pledged that the main cause of sheep worrying is dog owners not keeping their dogs on a lead. Dog owners need to be aware that under the Dog (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 a person can be found guilty of ‘worrying’ without their dog actually having any physical contact with the sheep. Under the Act, the owner of the dog, or anyone in charge of dog, that person also, shall be guilty of an offence if a dog is at large (that is to say not on a lead or otherwise under close control) in a field or enclosure in which there are sheep. Under close control is not defined within the Act but is deemed to mean dogs which are at heel and obeying commands. 
The definition of ‘worrying’ also includes dogs attacking livestock or chasing livestock in such a way as may reasonably be expected to cause injury or suffering to the livestock. It is important that any incidents of worrying are reported to the police and evidence, such as pictures on camera phones are collected. If a dog is caught worrying sheep or you can prove that the dog worried sheep, the owner can be fined up to £1,000 and can also be ordered to pay compensation for the death or injury of any sheep. The police also have the powers to ‘detain’ a dog suspected of worrying livestock if there is no owner present, and can also obtain a warrant to enter premises in order to identify a dog.
Contrary to popular belief, a farmer does not have a legal right to shoot a dog that is worrying their livestock - what they have is a legal defence. This is a grey area and shooting a dog should always be a last resort. Dogs are classed as property so shooting a dog could trigger criminal damage proceedings and the farmer will have to prove he had a ‘lawful excuse’. The farmer will need to show that his sheep were in immediate need of protection, and that his actions were reasonable having regard to all the circumstances. The farmer could also face civil proceeding for damages for the loss of the dog. The farmer will need to prove that the dog was worrying or was about to worry the livestock, and there was no other reasonable means of ending the worrying. What is regarded as ‘reasonable’ will depend on the individual facts of each case. It is imperative that if a dog is shot it is reported to the police within 48 hours of the incident, failure to do so may impact on the above defences.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to dogs. Possible proceeding under this act maybe a particular concern if the dog is not killed cleanly with one shot. Breach of this act can have severe punishment with up to six months’ imprisonment and/or fines of up to £20,000. The use of a gun in these circumstances could potentially lead to a review of the farmer’s gun licence. Although, it is not a ground for revocation any review carries with it a risk that it maybe revoked.
The reality of livestock attacks can have devastating effects for both the farmer and dog owner. Dog owners need to be aware and understand that the most loving, obedient family pet can become a menace when in a field filled with a flock of playful looking woolly sheep. In a bid to reduce the number of livestock attacks it is important that both farmers and dog owners work together. Dog owners should always keep their dogs on a lead when near livestock and farmers should ensure there are adequate signs on gates and paths to remind owners to keep their dog on a lead. Farmers should also consider placing livestock feeders away from public paths to reduce the risk of interaction between dogs and livestock.
Remember livestock worrying is a crime and any incident should be reported to the police.
If you require any further advice on this matter and your right and responsibilities, please do not hesitate to contact our Agricultural team on 01653 600070.