Sheep are considered livelihoods, both as a current and future income for a farmer. When a pet owner walks their dog/s off the lead in a field with sheep, that dog’s natural chase instincts may kick in. The obedient dog of any size, threatens sheep and the farmer’s working life. We also look at the legalities of a farmer using a firearm.
Does a farmer has the legal right to shoot your dog?
Dogs = property
Sheep = property and a farmer’s livelihood
For a farmer to shoot a dog and for it to be a legal act, he must prove he believed his sheep were in immediate danger and subsequently the actions were reasonable.
The best option to avoid the above is for farmers and dog owners to work together:
1 – Dog owners can use preventative measures by keeping their canines on a lead in rural areas and farms, not forgetting free-roaming areas such as the North Yorkshire Moors and villages. Dogs with known high prey drive must definitely be restricted by keeping them on a lead and the owner must have control. A dog owner must understand the pain inflicted on a sheep when chased or attacked, the livelihood of the farmer and the repercussions on themselves
2 – Farmers can offer security by ensuring sheep fields have secure fencing and appropriate signage forewarning dog walkers they are entering an area with sheep and on-lead walking is a priority and not a choice
Two Acts of interest:
1: Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953:
Under this Act, if a dog worries a sheep on farmland, the person who is in charge of the dog is guilty of an offence.
The Act considers sheep worrying to include:
- Chasing in such a way that it may cause injury, suffering, abortion or loss of production
- Attacking sheep
2: Animal Welfare Act 2006:
It is considered an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to dogs. A breach of this act could result in the farmer facing a fine of up £20,000 and/or 6 months in prison.
3: Animal Act 1971:
An owner may have the right to sue a farmer for ‘trespass of goods’ (the dog). The act may be a farmer’s defence if it can be proved:
- An owner wasn’t in sight to control the dog, and the farmer was unable to locate the owner
- A farmer believed the dog was worrying its sheep, and there wasn’t any other way to stop it
- A dog was worrying the sheep and was still in the area of threat to the sheep and the farmer was unable to locate the owner
What is sheep worrying?
“The Collins dictionary defines sheep worrying as ‘agriculture’ :
Therefore, sheep worrying relates to any dog’s behaviour that harasses, frightens, attacks or chases sheep. In turn, this behaviour, whether meant to be harmful or playful, can cause stress, injury and death to sheep.
What is the impact of sheep worrying on a farmer?
“All dogs are a danger. All dogs are descended from the wolf.”Sheep Watch
Even well-behaved dogs, including toy dogs, walked off lead and have played a part in killing thousands of sheep yearly. High-prey dogs, a pack, or a single dog can suddenly become uncontrollable and behave in a dangerous manner leading to natural chase instincts and the possibility of injury and killing of its target.
It is easy for a dog owner to believe their obedient, sweet-natured dog will never run off and hurt another animal.
Unfortunately, the death of sheep has a tremendous financial impact on the farmer.
According to NFU Mutual in 2018, the cost to the UK’s agricultural industry was £1.2 million from livestock worrying. The impact on the farmer’s working life, livelihood, and income loss causes irreparable damage. The final loss figure would be significantly increased if every case were reported.
How are sheep distressed by dogs?
A sheep does not necessarily have to be killed. Stress can cause ewes to miscarry. Lambs and ewes can separate, and the lamb can die from dehydration and starvation. Injuries can become infected. Sheep can become stressed and die from shock. Sheep can panic and run into ponds or rivers and drown, injuring themselves by crunching together by walls or fences.
Additionally, there are the veterinary bills and costs of repairing boundary damages inflicted by stressed sheep fleeing an attack.
The following are 5 real-life results of dogs chasing or attacking sheep or lambs:
1 – 116 sheep bodies: Sheep were not bitten but died of fright
2 – A distressed sheep with facial injuries: The sheep survived but resulted in a psychological impact. All animals have emotions — even your pet dog
3 – A bloody sheep was put to sleep because of the severity of its injuries caused by a dog
4 – A sheep was put to sleep because a dog pulled its tail out by the roots, which removed part of its back
5: A farmer holding his lamb: The lamb, still alive, has a bloody bite on its underside
These shocking injuries, inflicted pain, and physical and emotional torture on an innocent animal that cannot defend itself should not happen. Dog owners can prevent this by keeping their pet dog on a lead when walking in the countryside with sheep.
In 2016, farmers shot the following breeds for chasing sheep
- Shih Tzu
- Great Dane
- Patterson Terrier
- Jack Russell
- Border Terrier
- German Shepherd
The list further proves that any breed and size can resort to natural behaviour when faced with sheep. A labrador and a shih tzu are breeds you would not expect to be listed.
What are the implications for a farmer if he shoots a dog?
Because a dog is considered property, shooting it can result in a criminal damage charge for a farmer.
Shooting a dog because sheep are in danger must be ‘reasonable’ but depends on the overall circumstances of the event. A farmer cannot shoot a dog after it has left the area where the sheep are or believe the dog will return, but taking action against a repeat offender may be justified. Shooting a dog must be a last resort for the farmer.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it’s an offence to cause any animal needless suffering. The question is – was the dog killed cleanly in one shot, or did it suffer? If the dog suffered and it was a breach under this act, it could result in the farmer facing a fine of up to £20,000 and/or six months in prison.
A farmer must report the shooting of any dog to the Police within 48 hours of the event to ensure defences in future civil court proceedings.
A farmer using a firearm may be prosecuted
As we mentioned, the shooting of a dog must be reported to the Police within 48 hours. The firearm a farmer uses must be authorised for its use (i.e. shooting a dog for sheep worrying) and would be shown in the firearm certificate. If a farmer shoots a dog and breaks certificate conditions, he can be prosecuted and face a possible prison sentence, or if a farmer runs after a dog with the sole purpose of shooting it, it is worth noting that this can also herald a prosecution for trespassing with a firearm.
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Which breeds are protected by the Dogs Protection of Livestock Act 1953?
A selection of breeds is exempt if working at the time.
- Police dogs
- Working gun dogs
- Under the Hunting Acts 2004, hounds are exempt too.
Owners in charge of other breeds can be fined up to £1000 under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock Act) 1953 if their dog sheep worries.
How can a farmer and dog owner work together?
A farmer should ensure all boundary fences are secure to prevent walkers from straying onto private land. A farm may have a public right of way or adjacent to it, so must ensure lambs, pregnant ewes or hay feeders are far away from where dogs may walk.
Another recommendation is placing visible signage asking for all dogs to be on a lead near sheep. This will aid farmers and prevent dog owners from stating that sheep are not normally in a particular area when an attack occurs.
- A farmer must consider factors before shooting a dog
- Shooting a dog means a farmer faces a criminal damage charge
- An owner may be eligible to sue a farmer for trespass to goods
- A farmer can face prosecution if the firearm certificate does not cover shooting a dog
- Owners who have charge of a dog can face up to £1000
New laws in Scotland 2023
“The Kept Animals Bill is well behind schedule which is frustrating on one hand but I still don’t believe it is fit for purpose, still not requiring dogs to be on leads when in fields with sheep and suggesting maximum fines for those found guilty being limited to £1000 in England. This compares to a recent change of legislation in Scotland that has seen the same crime punishable with up to a £40,000 fine or prison sentence. This disparity must be addressed. A lack of punishment and continued varied responses from Police Rural Crime teams is frustrating farmers who are experiencing great upset as well as financial loss because of this issue.”NSA Chief Executive
This article does not constitute legal advice, nor am I legally trained. We recommend you consult a professional solicitor to ensure you receive the correct, appropriate, and up-to-date legal information.
Poppy’s Pets has a pet niche column in a local newspaper