Sheep worrying incidents have received increased media coverage recently, particularly in Scotland. This may be due in part to the growing awareness of the impact that this behaviour can have on farmers and their livelihoods during lambing season, as well as the potential danger it poses to livestock and dogs.
Recent figures released by the NSA (National Sheep Association) highlight that 76% of farmers have seen an increase in dog attacks over the course of last year. More recently, we saw the reporting of a dog attack in Fife, which resulted in the death of 16 lambs amounting to an estimated loss of around £7,000, as well as great distress to the farmer and his family.
The effects of sheep worrying can be devastating, and often the law is poorly understood.
Scottish Outdoor Access Code
In terms of the public's responsibility, the Scottish Outdoor Access Code sets out various examples of how dog owners should keep their dogs under control, for example:
- Never let your dog worry or attack livestock;
- Never take your dog into a field where there are calves or lambs;
- Where possible, choose a route that avoids going near sheep, cows and horses. If you need to go into a grazing area, it is mandatory that you keep the dog on a short lead or close at heel and keep your distance from the animals.
Famers and dog owners should be familiar with this code. Should you come across a dog owner in breach of this code, there may be more formal legal remedies available.
In addition to media attention, there have been calls for stricter laws and penalties for sheep worrying. Many have advocated for increased enforcement of existing laws, whilst others have called for new legislation providing greater protection for sheep and other livestock in response to a rise in incidents.
The guidance in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code is reinforced by the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953. This legislation was recently updated in Scotland via the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2021 to reflect the seriousness of sheep worrying and the level of both financial and emotional damage it can cause to those affected.
The legislation provides that if a dog attacks or worries livestock on agricultural land, the person in charge of the dog is guilty of an offence. Worrying is defined as: "attacking livestock; chasing livestock in such a way as may reasonably be expected to cause injury or suffering; or being out of control in a sheep field without the authorisation of the owner or occupier".
As of November 2021, "worrying" also includes, in the case of females, abortion, or loss of or diminution in their produce. It also expanded the definition of worrying to a dog being outwith its owner's control in a field where there are sheep.
Alongside the 1953 Act and amendments, the Animals (Scotland) Act 1987 imposes 'strict liability' with regards to owners or those in charge of dogs which cause injury or damage in particular by biting, savaging or harrying. The imposition of a strict liability offence means that the owner or person in charge of the dog will be liable for the injury or damage regardless of whether there is reckless conduct on the owner's part.
Dog Control Notices are also becoming increasingly common, and these are logged on the Scottish Dog Control Database. Such Notices are reinforced by the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 and are served by the Local Authorities if it appears that a dog is displaying alarming behaviour or is out of control. There are various steps which an owner must take when served with a Dog Control Notice, helping to raise awareness of the importance of responsible pet ownership.
Under the 2021 amendments, the court has the power to impose stricter penalties, including fines of up to £40,000, a maximum prison sentence of 12 months or both.
The amendments also give the police and sentencing courts greater powers to seize a dog. These powers include examining the dog to determine if an offence has been committed if they have reasonable cause to believe it has been worrying livestock. In some cases, the court may order that the dog be destroyed. The decision to order the destruction of the animal is taken on a case-by-case basis and based on factors such as the severity of the attack, the dog's history and the likelihood of the dog causing further harm.
In addition, the court may impose a criminal compensation order on the owner or those responsible for the dog, allowing the farmer or landowner to recoup their losses regarding livestock or veterinary bills.
What should farmers and landowners do?
There are preventative steps farmers and landowners can take to protect against sheep worrying.
- Signage can be used to alert the public to the presence of sheep and lambs. The NSA have a number of dog control signs which can be downloaded from their website (undernoted).
- Check fencing in areas where sheep and lambs are grazing and ensure they are properly enclosed.
- In the event that a dog is out of control and immediate action is required, the landowner has the right to retain the dog to prevent causing injury or damage. Reasonable care must be taken with the dog and then it must be returned to the owner or the police notified. In cases where it may not be practical or safe to detain the dog, the police should be contacted using 101 or 999.
- As a more extreme measure, the Animals (Scotland) Act 1987 gives the power to shoot a dog as a last resort.
- Any actions must be for the protection of livestock.
- The dog has to be actively worrying or attacking the livestock; and
- There must be no other means of ending the attack.
- It is advised, where possible, to take photographic evidence of such an attack, and it is imperative that the police are informed as soon as reasonably possible. If there is a breach of any of the above conditions, the individual may face prosecution and/or have their firearms licence removed.
This article was co-written and researched by trainee's Julie Bankier and Chloe Imrie.
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.