A series of horrific attacks by dogs on livestock is a consequence of lockdown and more people walking in the countryside who are oblivious to the threat posed by out-of-control pets, according to farmers.
Earlier this month, 50 pregnant ewes and their unborn lambs were killed in Monmouthshire when a dog forced them into a corner against a stone wall, where the panicking animals suffocated and died.
Traumatised farmers are calling for tougher police action and more government funding to publicise the Countryside Code.
The Guardian revealed last year that successive governments spent less than GBP2,000 a year over the past decade on promoting the code.
Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said there was “undoubtedly” a rise in attacks on sheep because of lockdown.
“We’ve definitely observed an increase in incidents of dogs attacking sheep,” he said. “Everything we’re seeing and hearing is suggesting that there are more incidents and more serious incidents as well.
“It’s a result of lockdown and people using areas of the countryside that they wouldn’t have done previously. So many people are discovering farmed countryside for the first time and they are not aware of how they should be behaving.”
Stocker called for the Countryside Code to be updated with much stronger guidance for dog owners. Rather than asking people to “keep dogs under effective control” it should require people to keep their dogs on leads near livestock.
“It needs to be properly funded and properly promoted with TV ads in the same way as we’re seeing the Covid ads,” he added.
Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, said he had counted 2,500 people on a recent weekend walking through his farmyard or on footpaths through his fields near Harpenden in Hertfordshire.
“We are seeing more people with dogs that haven’t got them on leads, straying off the signposted footpaths into areas set aside for conservation and wildlife,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot more people in the countryside, which is a good, positive thing but we need people to follow the Countryside Code and act responsibly. When it comes to dogs, keep it on a lead and under control.”
Roberts said the government could “absolutely” do more to support the Countryside Code and he welcomed the current government consultation to update it. “I think we do need to reinforce it,” he said.
Jamie Penrith, a dog trainer and founder member of the Association of Responsible Dog Owners, called for more effective training to teach dogs to avoid livestock using e-collars. E-collars are banned in Wales and Defra plans to ban them in England as well.
“As lambing season approaches the government should admit that lecturing people to keep their dogs on leads is insufficient because they constantly escape,” said Penrith.