My dog Spot is a reasonably obedient terrier, never moving more than twenty yards away from me when out on walks in the countryside. I keep an eye out for potential hazards, such as people on horseback or groups of people with dogs, and when I call him, he reliably comes straight back to me, as long as he's not distracted by something unusual.
On this occasion, I was engrossed in a conversation with a friend, and I didn't notice Spot's ears perk up as we moved along the path. It was only when I saw the sheep ahead of us that I recognised the hazard, and by then it was almost too late: Spot had them firmly in his sights, and he had started trotting towards them. A bellow from me, and he stopped, thought twice about it, then came back to me. But it could have gone badly wrong.
Many of you will have seen the infamous Youtube video of "Fenton" from last year: the large black dog had charged off in full chase of deer in London's Richmond Park, with his owner running after him, shouting his name in vain. The video made many people laugh, perhaps sometimes because they had suffered a similar distressing experience themselves, with an out-of-control dog ignoring all pleas from his or her owner. In reality, it's a frighteningly serious situation: sheep can be physically injured or killed by marauding dogs, and as a reaction, dogs can be legally shot dead by furious farmers.
Walking the dog in the British countryside can be one of life's great pleasures, but there are responsibilities that cannot be forgotten. Dogs need to be kept under close control to ensure they do not worry livestock or stray onto neighbouring land. It is a criminal offence to allow a dog to chase or attack livestock on agricultural land and the dog only needs to be in a field with sheep to legally constitute an offence of worrying. By law, farmers are permitted to destroy a dog that injures or worries their animals: prevention is the key to ensure that both dogs and sheep remain safe.
The following tips, courtesy of Dogs Trust, should be printed out and stuck on the back of the door beside the dog leashes, to be read before every dog walk in the countryside:
- Always keep your dog on a lead and away from livestock
- Take extra care during pregnancy/ lambing/ calving seasons (from December to April) to minimize the risk of disturbing farm animals
- Make sure your home and garden is secure at all times when your dog is unsupervised so that he does not stray and worry neighbouring livestock
- Make sure your dog is well trained and obedient to your commands
- As a general rule, keep your dog on a lead on public paths if you cannot rely on its obedience.
- By law, you must control your dog so that it does not disturb or scare farm animals. You must keep your dog on a short lead (extendible leads are not ideal) in most areas of open country and common land between 1 March and 31 July and at all times near farm animals on agricultural land.
- Be careful of situations where you may unintentionally be 'herding' cattle or sheep into a confined space where their only means of escape is to charge towards you
- Leave all gates as you found them - open or closed.
- If a farm animal chases you and your dog, it is safer to let your dog off the lead – the dog is likely to out run you to safety so don’t risk getting hurt by trying to protect it.
- Do not pass between a cow or sheep and its young as they may act more aggressively whilst protecting their young