Sheep worrying is something that is sadly becoming an all too common occurrence throughout the countryside. Social media and local news will often show graphic images of injured livestock and detailed reports from farmers of the devastating impact on their flock. But how widespread is the issue and how can we avoid it happening at all?

What actually is sheep worrying?

The legal definition of sheep worrying is when, on agricultural land, a dog either attacks sheep, chases them in such as way as to likely cause injury, suffering or abortion of pregnant ewes, or is said to ‘be at large’ meaning the dog is not on a lead or otherwise under close control.

By allowing any of these actions, the owner of the dog is breaking the law and can be subject to prosecution. Note that the dog doesn’t actually have to physically injure a sheep for it to be an offence. Any out of control dog amongst a flock can cause so much panic in the sheep that they can easily die from stress or abort their lambs.

It is often assumed that only aggressive dogs are involved in sheep worrying, but this is not always the case. Sheep will run when scared and dogs, by nature, like to chase. Because of this, any dog that starts to chase a flock, either out of aggression or excitement, can cause problems

How common is it?

The National Sheep Association carry out a survey every year to gather data around sheep worrying and the information from 2021 reveals a growing problem. Over 600 farmers responded and on average, each farmer had suffered seven incidences of sheep worrying over the previous 12 months. Shockingly, a number of respondents reported over 100 attacks in the past year, with 72% resulting in injuries to the sheep and 60% resulting in death. On average, each incident left five sheep injured and two dead. 

The national lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic brought their own problems. Two-thirds of farmers reported an increase in sheep worrying compared to previous years. This is thought to be due to a combination of an increase in dog ownership, more people being at home and available to walk their dogs and a lack of access to dog training classes. 

How does it impact farmers?

The impact of sheep worrying on the farmers is stark. Over 60% of farmers reported receiving a negative response from dog owners when asking them to put their dog on a lead. With over half receiving verbal abuse and around one in ten suffering physical retaliation in the form of vandalism or physical abuse. This leads, not unsurprisingly, to anger, frustration and distress. Alarmingly, around 50% of farmers reported a moderate to severe effect on their mental health. 

There are also obvious financial implications. The average cost of an attack for the farmer is now £1570 but estimates for some incidences have reached £50,000. Considering the severe outcomes of sheep worrying on a flock, it may be surprising to see that only 38% of farmers reported every attack to the police. With only around 7% of reported incidents leading to attempts at prosecution and nearly half of farmers feeling the police made no positive efforts to support them, many have little faith in the current system. 

What are the consequences of sheep worrying?

The most obvious consequence of sheep worrying is physical injury to the sheep through bite wounds and claw marks from the dog. This can result in the immediate death of the sheep or may lead to them needing to be humanely euthanised or undergo veterinary treatment of any wounds.

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As mentioned previously, if a pregnant ewe is chased by a dog, the stress of the chase can cause her to abort her lambs. In some cases, the stress can kill the sheep too. In the panic of a chase, sheep can often cause injury to themselves by running through fencing and lambs can become separated from their mothers. For the farmer, sheep worrying takes a financial but also emotional toll and many report an effect on their mental health. Sheep farming depends on the next generation of lambs and any losses can severely impact on the business. 

Can the farmer shoot your dog?

The dog involved is also at risk of injury or even death, as in some cases, the farmer is within his or her right to shoot the dog, although there are strict laws around when this would be deemed acceptable. If a dog is shot during an episode of sheep worrying, it must be reported to the police within 48 hours. For the farmer to have a defence for the shooting, 

  • the dog must be worrying, or has been seen worrying livestock and there is no other way to prevent it
  • the dog must be trespassing on the land
  • the dog is still in the vicinity of the sheep
  • the dog is not under control
  • there is no obvious way to ascertain the owner of the dog

If the farmer does not have a defence and is deemed to be in breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 by causing unnecessary suffering to an animal. He or she could face up to 6 months in prison, fines of up to £20,000 and possibly a ban on keeping animals in the future. The shooting of a dog may also instigate a review of the farmer’s firearms certificate and bring with it a risk of the license being revoked. 

As well as risking the life of their pet, the owner of any dog caught sheep worrying can be liable for prosecution, and subject to fines and possible compensation for the farmer. In Scotland, the law has very recently changed and now owners found guilty of allowing their dog to worry sheep will face fines of up to £40,000 or even a prison sentence and there are strong calls to implement the changes across the whole of the UK.

How can we prevent sheep worrying?

Keeping dogs on a lead around livestock and having good, basic training in place are the keys to preventing sheep worrying. In case dog walkers encounter sheep unexpectedly, having a reliable recall command is essential. Owners who live in a rural area should also make sure their property is secure so their dog cannot escape onto agricultural land and potentially chase livestock.

It is useful for farmers to place signs warning dog owners that livestock are in a field and clearly mark any footpaths to reduce the risk of trespassing. Also providing contact details on the signs allows for members of the public to report cases of sheep worrying to the farmer directly. 

Sheep worrying is a serious crime and if dog owners, farmers and the police work together to raise awareness and help combat the issue, it is a crime that can be relegated to the past and sheep can graze safely in the fields again. 

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