Pity the poor sheep. Every other animal has its champions. There are fox fanatics, dog obsessives, campaigners for cat welfare. Pigs, once a celebrity pet of choice, have their supporters, too. But it’s sheep who need friends right now, because they are, quite literally, under attack.
My Facebook pals are mostly country types and barely a day goes by without one of them posting a picture of a sheep mauled, often fatally, by untrained, unrestrained city-dwelling dogs.
Camilla Swift is joined by Ben Fogle to discuss the plight of sheep:
Sheep-worrying used to be quite a minor problem but it is now getting much worse in terms of the number of incidents. The police say that up to 15,000 sheep were killed last year, which is ten times higher than previous estimates. The National Police Chiefs Council has agreed to set up a group to investigate how well regional forces react to complaints of dog attacks.
The National Farmers’ Union reports that insurance claims for attacks on farm animals are at a record high — in some counties claims rose by more than 50 per cent last year. In Scotland, the amount farmers claimed for attacks trebled, and the cost of livestock-worrying across the UK may be as high as £1.4 million. And why? Because urban dog-owners can’t be bothered to train their dogs or to just keep them on leads.
This is the worst time of year. In early spring, sheep are brought down to lower-level pastures for lambing — in fields where people may be pottering with their pets. And in the Easter holidays families are keen to get children away from their iPad screens and make the most of the great outdoors. These days, city parks have too often been designated dog-free by bossy-boots local councils. More than 3,000 parks and open spaces now ban dogs — bizarre in a nation that is utterly in love with the species. This forces owners into the countryside, a realm they are not used to. They don’t know that it’s lambing season, or that a pregnant ewe will often abort a lamb simply from the stress of being chased by a dog.
Dogs have been worrying sheep since the dawn of time and the number of dogs in Britain has remained fairly steady. The change lies with the owners. Too often, they see dogs as replacement (or additional) children. They can’t imagine that little Fluffy would ever attack. ‘He wouldn’t hurt a fly,’ they say. While Fluffy might be perfectly behaved in suburbia, a flock of sheep is a new temptation. Candy-floss on legs proves almost irresistible. And despite farmers securing their fields and putting up signs, many owners let their dogs run free regardless.
Remember that video of Fenton the labrador chasing deer in Richmond Park? (Of course you do… ‘FENTOOOOOONNN!’) It was hilarious because we knew he was never going to catch one. But imagine if the focus of Fenton’s attention had been a flock of dopey sheep. Things might not have ended so well. Even if he hadn’t caught one, scared sheep have a tendency to bunch up together in small spaces and squash one another to death.
There are plenty of ways to train a dog not to chase sheep. One friend recalls a relative popping her young German Shepherd (a serial offender) in a sack with its head out, then driving her sheep over it. It was its final chance to learn the lesson. Better than a farmer’s bullet through its head.
Others suggest putting the dog in a field with a few older sheep and their lambs as, I quote, ‘They will kick the hell out of her. It’s nasty, but it works.’ More 21st–century solutions include practising your dog’s recall skills in distracting environments — somewhere with plenty of tennis balls being thrown around, for example, or ‘zap collars’ that deliver an electric shock (or simply vibrate) when a remote control is pressed. Most dogs won’t need telling more than a few times — so even if the treatment is harsh, the trauma is short-lived.
What ought to convince people to keep their dogs on leads is to remind them that farmers have a legal right to shoot dogs that are chasing livestock. Is that really worth the risk? Well in that case, you’d better start teaching your dog that ‘No!’ means no.
Camilla Swift is The Spectator’s social media editor, edits Spectator Schools, and compiles our letters page.