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Kate Esler and Ed Simmons at their Somerset farm, where there have been six dog attacks in little over 12 months.

Complacency among some dog owners alongside an inability to control their pets has seen dog attacks on livestock in the South West of England cost an estimated £359,000 last year, up 31% from 2022, latest figures from NFU Mutual reveal.

The shocking statistics comes as NFU Mutual’s latest survey of over 1,100 dog owners released yesterday found more people were letting their dogs off leads in the countryside last year than in 2022, 68% and 64% respectively.

Worryingly, fewer than half (49%) said their pet always comes back when called.

Almost eight percent admitted their dog chases livestock but 46% believed their dog was not capable of causing the death or injury of farm animals. More than half (54%) felt they did not need to take active measures to prevent their dog from chasing.

If present at an attack, 57% of dog owners would intervene to stop it, 22% would report it to a local farmer and 11% would call the police.

Across the UK, dog attacks on livestock were estimated to cost £2.4 million last year, up nearly 30% compared to the previous year. In England, the South West region was the worst-hit region by cost, followed by the Midlands (£331,000).

It comes as the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) Bill is making its way through parliament. NFU Mutual says it welcomes this Bill, which improves powers available to police for dealing with dog attacks on livestock.

Phoebe Turnbull, from NFU Mutual South West, said: ‘The shocking increase in the cost of dog attacks on livestock is incredibly alarming news for farmers in the South West of England, especially as the 2024 lambing season gets underway and pregnant ewes and newborn lambs are vulnerable.

‘We’ve heard reports from farmers about the complacency and naivety of some dog owners who regularly allow their pets to roam off-lead in the countryside, seemingly unaware of the carnage the dog could cause, then are horrified when an attack happens.

‘There have also been incidences where dogs have chased, injured and killed sheep and the owner is nowhere to be seen.

‘Farmers are also living in fear of repeat attacks, which cause horrific and needless suffering to livestock and can traumatise all involved dealing with the aftermath.

‘All dogs are capable of chasing, attacking and killing farm animals, regardless of breed, size or temperament.

‘We’re urging all dog owners to be responsible for their pet and keep them on a lead when walked anywhere near livestock. If there is an attack, it is important people accept responsibility and report it, to a local farmer and the police, so that the injured animals are not left suffering in pain.’

One victim is a Devon sheep farmer who has lost up to 80 ewes and lambs to dog attacks, including eight in-lamb ewes in the past month, says only a return to compulsory dog licensing will solve the problem of persistent livestock worrying.

Farming near Holsworthy, he lambs approximately 950 ewes each year and also rears cattle. The farmer believes making dog owners pay a reasonable sum for a licence might make some irresponsible owners think twice about keeping a dog.

Some of his sheep graze on grass-keep away from the farm during the winter, where the latest attack by a dog occurred. He has reported it to the police. The dog, a large lurcher cross, had been filmed on CCTV by a neighbour, but there was no sign of the owner.

After arriving at his field, the farmer found six ewes and their unborn lambs already dead, and two more needing to be put down because of their injuries.

He puts the value of the losses at between £1,200 and £1,600 but said the distress for the flock and the suffering of the ewes caused just as much concern to him and other livestock farmers. ‘The stress for the other ewes that have been chased can be just as bad,’ he said. ‘They can abort their lambs because of it.’

He revealed another ewe severely damaged by two dogs at the end of January 2024 had to be put down by a vet.

Dog licences were scrapped in England, Scotland and Wales in 1987, but retained in Northern Ireland, where the problem of stray dogs and sheep worrying was considered to be greater.

The farmer added it would be impossible to mount a round-the-clock watch on the fields where his sheep graze. ‘I don’t blame the dogs, in many cases they are doing what comes naturally,’ he said. Adding that he accepted the majority of dog owners were responsible and that owners of dogs that chased and attacked sheep were in a minority.

He said the problem came with owners who let their dogs roam with no idea where they were, adding that any owner whose dog returned home with blood around its mouth should know it had attacked sheep. ‘The problem is, no dog owner is likely to report their own dog,’ he said.

The farmer fattens around 2,500 lambs a year and says dog attacks are serious issue that shows little sign of getting better for sheep farmers all over the Westcountry.

So with many dog owners planning to visit the countryside at a time when sheep and lambs are at their most vulnerable, NFU Mutual is calling for them to:

  • Keep dogs on a lead when walking in rural areas where livestock are kept but let go of the lead if chased by cattle
  • Be aware that all dogs, regardless of size, breed, and temperament, can cause the distress, injury and death of farm animals
  • Report attacks by dogs to the police or local farmers
  • Never let dogs loose unsupervised in gardens near livestock fields – many attacks are caused by dogs which escape and attack sheep grazing nearby
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