UK: Refresh Of The Countryside Code

Last Updated: 7 March 2019
Article by Alexandra Smith and Hamish Lean

With the peak lambing season almost upon us, farmers across Scotland are calling for greater awareness of the ever-present threat of sheep worrying, and potential changes in the law carrying harsher penalties.

Responding to these concerns, NFU Scotland launched its campaign, Control Your Dog on Farmland, in Glasgow at the beginning of February with four key messages:

  1. Be informed: know what your responsibilities are under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC).
  2. Plan ahead: know your route; make sure you have a lead and bags to remove dog mess.
  3. Control your pet: always keep dogs on a lead around livestock.
  4. Picking up after your dog is not enough: put dog mess in a bin, do not leave it in undergrowth or bushes.

What are your responsibilities under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code?

The SOAC contains reciprocal obligations on landowners and the general public, including dog walkers. It is available online here.

Responsibilities around farm animals

While access rights extend to fields with farm animals in them, the SOAC warns that some livestock (especially cows during the calving season), can react aggressively to walkers. Accordingly, before entering any field containing livestock you should check for alternative routes, particularly if there are young animals in the field. If there are no alternatives then a safe distance should be maintained at all times.

When exercising access rights, the general public should never feed or directly contact any livestock. Litter should be removed, and all gates should be closed behind them. No cars should be parked in a field where there are farm animals.

Farmers are encouraged to keep animals that are known to be dangerous and/or calving or lambing away from fields containing core paths or well used routes, if possible.

Responsibilities when dog walking                   

Access rights can be enjoyed when dog walking, provided dogs are kept under proper control. Damage caused by dogs can be a major source of problems for farmers, who can suffer significant losses of livestock and, therefore, income as a result.

Guidance for dog walking in the countryside includes:

  • Never let your dog worry or attack farm animals.
  • Dog walkers are prohibited from taking dogs into fields where there are lambs, calves or young farm animals.
  • If you do take your dog into fields where there are livestock present, keep your dog on a short lead and as far away from the animals as possible.
  • Do not take your dog into fields where vegetables or fruit are growing, unless there is a clear path along which to take your dog.
  • During the breeding season (generally April-July) keep your dog on a short lead or close at heel in moorland, forests, grasslands, loch shores and the sea shore, to avoid disturbing birds that build their nests on or near the ground.

The Your Dog, Your Responsibility campaign launched by the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime emphasises the importance of owners taking responsibility for their dogs, and understanding both the emotional distress and financial impact sheep worrying can have on the farming community. It highlights that most incidents occur when the dog owner is not present.

The SOAC encourages farmers and land managers to contact Police Scotland to report sheep worrying incidents or any 'near misses' and the local authority Dog Warden or equivalent to report stray dogs out on their own; neighbours they know let their dogs out on their own; or a dog that is known regularly to escape from its garden. Action can then be taken to protect the livestock nearby and the dog itself.

The SOAC has its own ongoing campaign, Taking the Lead, to assist land managers and farmers by providing options for managing dog fouling, sheep worrying and other disturbances.

Proposed protection of Livestock (Scotland) Bill

Emma Harper MSP has put forward a proposal for a Bill to increase the penalties, and provide additional investigatory and enforcement powers for livestock worrying. A public consultation on the proposals is open until 15 May 2019.

The proposals include re-naming "livestock worrying" as "livestock attack" or "dog attack": this aims to reduce confusion about what the Bill will protect and what the offence entails. There should be increased penalties, with increased maximum fines of up to £5,000, and harsher consequences for an offence, including banning individuals from owning a dog.

The Bill also proposes increased enforcement and investigatory powers for Police Scotland, including the power to require an owner, within 24-hours of a suspected incident, to take the dog to a vet for inspection, or for the police to seize the dog and take it to the vet themselves.

You can read the proposals for the Bill in full here, and submit responses using the online survey or paper forms provided.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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