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Estimated cost of dog attacks on farm animals in the South West over £185,000 as pandemic sees surge in pet ownership and countryside visitors

New statistics released by leading rural insurer NFU Mutual, estimate dog attacks on farm animals across the South West cost more than £185,000 last year.

A recent survey of dog owners commissioned by NFU Mutual reveals that 64% of dog owners are letting their pets roam free in the countryside, despite half of owners surveyed admitting their dog doesn’t always come back when called.

The research revealed that 42% of dog owners have been walking their pets more often in the countryside during the pandemic, and that 81% of survey respondents have noticed more people exercising their pets in rural areas.

Roz Hills, South West Regional Manager at NFU Mutual, said:

With more people walking in the countryside as COVID restrictions continue and an increase in dog ownership, we have seen horrific attacks resulting in large numbers of sheep being killed and a trail of horrific injuries. These attacks cause unbearable suffering to farm animals as well as huge anxiety for farmers and their families as they deal with the aftermath.

 

It’s a critical time in the farming calendar and there is widespread concern as we enter the peak lambing season, that there will be a surge in new visitors who are simply unaware of the countryside code or how their dog will behave around farm animals. We want people to enjoy the countryside as it’s so important for people’s wellbeing. It’s vital that dog owners act responsibly and keep dogs on a lead at all times whenever there is a possibility livestock are nearby.

Alarmingly, only 40% of the dog owners surveyed accepted that their pet could cause the injury or death of a farm animal.

Roz explained, “Even if a dog doesn’t make physical contact, the distress and exhaustion of the chase can cause sheep to die or miscarry their lambs. It’s important that owners realise that all dog breeds, not just the big, fierce looking ones, are capable of attacking livestock, or chasing them.”

Owners’ responses to seeing dogs attacking livestock have also changed during the pandemic, with only 33% saying they would report an attack taking place to the police or a local farmer.

PC Chris Collins, Devon & Cornwall Police Rural Affairs Officer, said:

Livestock worrying is a criminal offence and has a devastating impact on livestock, farmers and in some circumstances the dog and the owner. In Devon and Cornwall during 2020 there were 181 reported incidents of livestock worrying, an alarming increase on previous years. I would urge all to take note of the NFU Mutual’s advice and demonstrate responsible dog ownership. Please report all incidents of livestock worrying. If you witness an attack on livestock do not intervene, keep yourself safe and call 999. For all other livestock worrying incidents please email 101@dc.police.uk or report crime online.

In 2020, the UK cost of dog attacks on livestock reached an estimated £1.3m – an overall increase of over 10%. The worst-affected region by cost was the North East, where farm animals worth £240,000 were savaged by dogs. The next most seriously-affected areas were the Midlands, South West and Wales.

With lambing season approaching and many more people planning to walk in the countryside – including those with new lockdown puppies – NFU Mutual is calling for dog owners to keep their pets under control at all times.

To make dog walking safe, NFU Mutual is issuing the following advice:

  • Always keep dogs on the lead when walking in rural areas where livestock are kept but let go of the lead if chased by cattle
  • Be aware that even small lap dogs can chase, injure and kill farm animals
  • Take special care to keep close control of dogs unused to farm animals
  • Report attacks by dogs and sightings of dogs roaming the countryside to the police or local farmers
  • Don’t let dogs loose and unsupervised in gardens adjoining livestock fields – many attacks are caused by dogs which escape and attack sheep grazing nearby

Dan Lethbridge farms sheep and cattle on a tenanted farm near Liskeard in south east Cornwall. He also purchases grass keep from other farms during the winter, to give his land a break, so his sheep are in a number of locations. Dan first experienced a case of livestock worrying a few years ago when a number of ewes and lambs were killed by a dog in one of his fields. More recently in November 2020, following a dog attack Dan discovered 18 dead lambs in one of his fields, which is surrounded and secured by an electric fence. Dan, 25, recalls:

I went out on the Saturday evening and found the first dead lamb. It was dark so I went to collect it on my quad bike but then as I started driving round I noticed I could see others and realised there were more – 18 in total. They had bite marks and injuries on them that were clearly from a dog attack. It’s pretty depressing and upsetting to have to deal with this, especially considering the fact that the owners didn’t report it – somebody must know something. A dog doesn’t just accidentally kill 18 lambs.

 

It’s sometimes ignorance more than anything – everyone knows accidents happen but with more and more people using the countryside to walk their dogs, some dogs have never even seen a sheep so the owners can’t tell how they will react – how can they be sure they will be able to keep it under control if it is off the lead?

For farmers, the health of the remaining sheep is just as concerning, especially if the ewes are pregnant. Dan says: “If they are chased around the field and are terrified by a dog then they can actually miscarry, which is terrible.”

In early January this year, a further three ewes were killed in another field of Dan’s sheep. He says: “It was pretty clear from their injuries that it was a dog. I realise that you can’t expect people to keep dogs on leads at all times but it’s important to be aware when livestock is around.  They should know that if a dog has never seen a sheep before that you don’t know how they might react. Dogs really should be on leads in these areas.”

Advice on preventing dogs attacking livestock is available from NFU Mutual’s website here.