I was recently given the opportunity to present to the National Sheep Association (NSA) on rural crime. It was an interesting discussion with several questions from concerned business owners in the rural sector.

The timing of the event coincided with media reporting in relation to an incident in which 16 lambs were killed in a dog attack. 

The focus of the event was therefore understandably on the offence of sheep attacking or worrying.

What is the offence?

The Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 (as amended in Scotland in 2021) provides that the owner, and, if different, the person in charge of the dog at the relevant time, commits an offence if a "dog attacks or worries livestock on any agricultural land".

The reference to "attacks" was amended into the 1953 Act in 2021 not to alter the scope of the offence but to "ensure that the word ‘attack’ is given greater prominence in the legislation, and that the language of the offence better reflects its seriousness".

Worrying livestock is defined broadly as “chasing livestock in such a way as may reasonably be expected to cause injury or suffering to the livestock or, in the case of females, abortion, or loss of or diminution in their produce” or “being at large (that is to say not on a lead or otherwise under close control) in a field or enclosure in which there are sheep”.

What are the potential penalties?

Based on the amendments in 2021, the offence carries a maximum sentence of 12 months imprisonment, a fine of up to £40,000 or both. This is a significant increase on the penalties that could previously be imposed - for instance the maximum level of fine that could be imposed prior to the 2021 amendments was £5,000.

In addition, a sentencing court has powers to:

(a) disqualify a convicted person from owning or keeping a dog for a period of time;

(b) prohibit a convicted person from taking a dog on agricultural land on which livestock is present or is likely to be present; and

(c) impose a criminal compensation order covering “personal injury, loss or damage caused directly or indirectly; or alarm or distress caused directly".

Any criminal compensation order would ordinarily be granted to the owner of the livestock in question and so in that way there is scope for recovery of losses in the course of criminal proceedings. There is also scope for raising separate civil legal proceedings to recover losses.

What approach have the courts taken?

The sentences imposed by Scottish criminal courts have increased following the 2021 amendments.

For instance, in 2019 a dog owner was fined £300 in circumstances where his dogs attacked sheep. By contrast, in 2022 a dog owner was fined £200 as well as being ordered to pay £2,650 in compensation and prohibited from taking a dog on agricultural land following a sheep attacking incident. The Sheriff hearing the case said: “Working in a rural environment, farmers are rightly concerned about dogs running wild and worrying their sheep”.

The next steps

The comments from the NSA audience made it clear that sheep attacking or worrying continues to pose a significant concern for the rural sector.

In the event of an incident, sector organisations should report matters to the authorities immediately and take steps to retain evidence with a view to supporting an investigation and prosecution. Legal advice can be sought on engagement with the authorities, the kind of evidence to be retained, support throughout the investigation and prosecution processes, and on recovery options.

Contributor

Ramsay Hall

Legal Director