Media reports in relation to livestock worrying seem to increase year on year, with sheep particularly vulnerable. While farmers can obtain insurance to cover financial losses and treatment costs arising from worrying, the effect on a farm's productivity can still be huge.
Due to the increased concern surrounding sheep worrying, the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime ("SPARC"), a multi-agency partnership including Police Scotland, NFU Scotland and Scottish Land and Estates, launched a campaign earlier this year titled "Your Dog - Your Responsibility". The campaign's aim was to improve understanding in relation to the consequences of worrying incidents.
So what exactly can be done if a dog has worried livestock, and what can farmers do to try and reduce the risk?
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gives rights to the public to access most land in Scotland, including fields with farm animals in them. The Act provides that a dog must be under "proper control" at all times. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code ("The Code"), which supplements the 2003 Act, states that dogs should be kept on a lead or close at heel if they enter a field with animals. If a dog is not under proper control and is found to be responsible for sheep worrying, the owner, or person in charge of the dog, could be found guilty of an offence.
Currently, under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, the Courts can impose a fine of up to £1,000 on the owner, or person in charge, of a dog which has worried livestock. In addition, local authorities can issue a Dog Control Notice (under the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010) which will impose measures on the owner, or person in charge, of a dog where they have failed to keep the dog under proper control. For example, there may be a measure to keep the dog on a lead or muzzle it. Failure to comply with a DCN can result in a fine, again of a maximum of £1,000.
With sheep worrying reported to be on the rise, SNP MSP Emma Harper proposed a new Protection of Livestock (Scotland) Bill. This proposal suggested an increased fine of up to £5,000, or imprisonment for up to 6 months, alongside powers to ban a person from owning dogs and increased police powers to seize a dog and take it to a vet for evidential purposes.
The consultation received over 1000 responses and the proposal received the necessary parliamentary approvals to proceed to be introduced as a Member's Bill. That is still awaited but we might anticipate introduction in the course of 2020.
The Farmer's Position
While proposed new penalties will be welcomed as a deterrent, they won't compensate affected farmers. With that in mind, NFU Mutual recommend that farmers continue to act to minimise the risk of attacks as follows:
- Check stock regularly;
- Where possible, keep sheep in fields away from public footpaths;
- Put up signs warning dog owners to keep control of their pets;
- Maintain walls, gates, fences etc to make it harder for dogs to get into fields;
- Report any attacks to the police immediately; and
- Ask neighbours to communicate details of any attacks they are aware of in the vicinity or when loose dogs have been seen near livestock.
Section 129 of the Civil Government (Scotland) Act 1982 provides a defence for farmers who kill or injure a dog which is worrying or attacking livestock. However, this can only be justified in certain circumstances and should only ever be used as an absolute last resort.