Stop worrying

Legal Posted 29/04/21
Your rights when it comes to protecting your sheep, writes Sarah Webster, Partner and Head of Agriculture & Rural Business Team at Brachers LLP.

Lambing season is now well underway and with it we are seeing the, unfortunately now familiar, stories of sheep worrying and dog attacks. With a spate of incidents recently reported in Kent, including a report of five attacks on sheep in five weeks at a farm in Sandwich, what can farmers do in response?

Knowing your rights and responsibilities as a sheep keeper is important in ensuring any action taken is appropriate and legal. The principle piece of legislation is the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 (‘the Act’), which sets out provisions for protecting livestock from dogs and the punishment of those found guilty of sheep worrying.

What is defined as ‘worrying’? This can be a physical attack as well as chasing in such a way as may reasonably be expected to cause injury or suffering, or being at large in an area containing sheep.

Who can be found guilty of an offence? Section 1 of the Act states that the owner of the dog or anyone else who is in charge of the dog at the time can be found guilty of a sheep worrying offence.

What power do the police have? The Act enables police to seize and detain any dog where there is reasonable cause to believe that a dog has been worrying livestock, together with powers to issue a warrant to search property to identify a dog suspected of sheep worrying.

What is the penalty for sheep worrying? Offenders will be penalised with a fine of up to £1,000.

There are a number of defences to the offence under the Act, including if the dog is owned by the sheep keeper or the owner of the field, is a police dog, guide dog or working dog, all of which will not be accountable under the Act.

What can a sheep keeper do in the event of a sheep worrying incident? The Animals Act 1971 enables the sheep keeper or farmer to take a civil action against the owner where a dog causes damage by killing or injuring livestock and the liability on the owner of the dog is absolute. However, evidence relating to the damage would need to be provided to enable the farmer to demonstrate the level of damages.

In exceptional circumstances a farmer may decide that destruction of a dog is the only option to prevent harm to their sheep. However it should be noted that this should always be a last resort and only in the event that there were no other reasonable means of ending the worrying. The legality of shooting a dog would very much depend on the individual circumstances of each situation and such action could open a farmer up to both criminal and civil proceedings.

Dogs are treated as property and therefore shooting a dog could trigger a criminal damage charge. In addition, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to dogs. Although there is an allowance for ‘the destruction of an animal in an appropriate and humane manner’, this is very much judged on the circumstances of each case and there is a significant risk that failing to kill the dog cleanly with one shot would fall foul of the legislation. Such an offence is punishable with up to six months’ imprisonment and/or fines of up to £20,000, together with the risk of being disqualified from keeping animals.

There is also a significant risk that the shooting of a dog would give rise to prosecution for firearms offences and it would almost certainly give rise to a police review of rights to keep firearms.

It is also important to remember that if a dog is shot it must be reported to the police within 48 hours of the incident. Failure to do so would impact on the defences available in both civil and criminal proceedings.

While landowners are protected by the law, so are dog owners. We would advise that anyone keeping sheep ensures they have a clear understanding of the law and how it applies in practical terms, as well as ensuring any actions in relation to sheep worrying are proportionate and backed up by a lawful excuse.


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