Sheep attacks and harassment: research
Findings from survey research on sheep worrying and wildlife attacks on sheep.
1. Executive summary
Dog attacks and predation by wildlife on sheep are issues of concern in several respects. Not only do such incidents cause obvious suffering to sheep, they have a financial, emotional and time impact on farmers.
There is a suggestion that attacks may be increasing and there is heightened publicity around the issue - particularly in relation to dog attacks. There has been a multi-agency campaign to reduce dog attacks by the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime (SPARC) and Emma Harper, MSP, has proposed a bill to increase penalties and to provide additional powers to investigate cases of livestock worrying. However, the existing evidence does not provide an adequate basis for assessing the true scale of the issues in Scotland. Nor does it adequately show the potential contributing factors or impacts, that can effectively inform the development of appropriate responses.
The Scottish Government therefore commissioned a large-scale, representative survey of sheep farmers and follow-up qualitative research to provide up-to-date and robust data on the problems.
The research comprised an initial desk review; a large mixed-method online and telephone survey of sheep farmers; and follow up qualitative research with sheep farmers.
The main purpose of the desk review was to provide an overview of the findings of previous related studies, to inform the focus and design of the main stage of fieldwork, including identifying any gaps in the existing literature.
The purpose of the survey was to provide robust data on: the prevalence of attacks on sheep by dogs and wildlife; the impact of attacks on sheep; the impact of attacks on farmers in terms of the financial impact, the time impact and the emotional impact; the perceived effectiveness of any preventative techniques; and views on potential policy interventions.
9,148 sheep farmers were selected to take part, identified through a combination of the Scottish Government's Agricultural Census data and other RPID administrative data. Measures were taken to maximise the representativeness of the sample, with farmers selected to reflect the profile of the sheep farming population in terms of regional distribution and the distribution of flock sizes.
A "push to web" approach was employed, with letters sent out to farmers inviting them to take part online, combined with a telephone survey targeting those who had not responded online. A total of 1,931 sheep farmers took part and the overall response rate was 21% - which is high for a survey of this nature.
Follow up qualitative research was conducted with survey respondents that had recent experience of attacks. The purpose was to explore some of the topics covered in the survey in greater depth, including the impact of sheep attacks on farmers and in particular the emotional impact of attacks and views on potential mitigation measures and policy interventions.
A total of 23 sheep farmers took part, across five small discussion groups which were held face-to-face in Inverurie, Moffat and Stirling and by telephone conference with farmers based in Argyll & Bute and the North Western Highlands & Islands.
Prevalence of dog attacks and the impact on sheep
14% of sheep farmers said that dogs had attacked or chased their sheep in the previous 12 months. These farmers indicated that they had experienced an average of 3.5 separate incidents over that period. Details they provided of their most recent incident suggests that, on average, each incident results in 1.58 sheep being killed, a further 0.51 having to be destroyed, a further 1.72 being injured, 0.34 ewes aborting, 1.02 instances of mis-mothering, and 28.04 sheep being stressed but physically uninjured.
Factors associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing a dog attack were:
- Larger flocks (7% of those with fewer than 20 sheep had experienced a dog attack in the previous 12 months, compared with 17% of those with 20-149 sheep, 14% of those with 150-749 sheep and 20% of those with more than 750 sheep)
- Sheep on fully open land (with no inbye) or open land with all/some lambing in bye (20% and 18% prevalence respectively compared with 12% where land is fully enclosed)
- Having a track or road which is regularly used by dog walkers close to any of the sheep (19% prevalence among those with such a track or road compared with 5% of those without).
- Being located in Lothian or East Central Scotland (28% prevalence in each case). There were fewer attacks in North East Scotland (8% prevalence) than elsewhere.
Prevalence of wildlife attacks and the impact on sheep
37% of sheep farmers said that their sheep had been attacked, chased or preyed on by wildlife in the previous 12 months. These farmers indicated that they had experienced an average of 9.4 separate incidents over that period. The impact on sheep and the nature of injuries clearly varies depending on the species of wildlife involved but details farmers provided of their most recent incident suggests that, on average, each incident results in 2.94 sheep being killed, a further 0.9 having to be destroyed, a further 1.3 being injured, 0.15 ewes aborting, 0.35 instances of mis-mothering, and 6.3 sheep being stressed but physically uninjured.
Respondents were asked not to include the scavenging of dead sheep when reporting the numbers affected. However, it is not always easy to tell whether a sheep was already dead/dying so it may be that some of those reported as having been killed had already died from some other cause. Similarly, some of the sheep preyed on (particularly young lambs) may have been relatively weak and may not have survived anyway.
Factors associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing a wildlife attack were:
- Larger flocks (10% of those with fewer than 20 sheep had experienced a wildlife attack in the previous 12 months, compared with 46% of those with 20-149 sheep, 26% of those with 150-749 sheep and 70% of those with more than 750 sheep)
- Sheep on open land with all/some lambing in bye (51% of those with sheep on this type of land had experienced a wildlife attack in the previous 12 months, compared with 31% of those with sheep on fully open land (with no inbye) and 33% of those where land is fully enclosed)
- Being located in East Central Scotland (64% prevalence), Argyll & Bute (57%), Ayrshire (53%) or Dumfries & Galloway (48%). There were fewer attacks in North East Scotland and Eileanan an Iar (26%) than elsewhere.
- Being located in a remote rural area (44% prevalence) rather than an accessible rural area (36%) or a very remote rural area (37%).
Are attacks increasing?
This is the first time that the prevalence of attacks has been measured on a Scotland-wide basis so it is not possible to say whether the number of attacks is increasing or not. However, the study provides a baseline against which trends over time - and the impact of interventions - could potentially be measured. What the research shows is that there is certainly a perception amongst some sheep farmers that attacks - particularly wildlife attacks - are increasing: 47% thought wildlife attacks were increasing in their area compared with 35% who thought there was no change. Attacks by crows, ravens and foxes were the species most commonly thought to be increasing although there was considerable variation by area, reflecting the different distribution of species.
Thirty-eight per cent of farmers thought dog attacks in their area were increasing compared with 41% who thought there was no change. Increases were attributed to a higher number of irresponsible dog owners using the countryside.
The impact on farmers
While dog attacks have a significant impact on those who experience them, overall, sheep farmers perceive wildlife attacks as a bigger problem: 48% said wildlife attacks were a big/moderate problem for them personally compared with 25% for dog attacks. This, at least in part, reflects the greater prevalence of wildlife attacks.
Attacks by dogs and wildlife clearly cause considerable suffering to sheep and are therefore a concern from an animal welfare perspective. This is highlighted by the figures above on the number of sheep killed, injured and stressed by attacks.
This study also provides data on the time, financial and emotional impact on farmers.
Farmers typically spent around 5 and a half hours dealing with each incident (for both dog attacks and wildlife attacks). The most time consuming aspects were treating injured sheep and investigating the attack. Using agricultural wages to provide a notional cost of this time, the average time cost of each dog incident is £50.33, while the average time cost of each wildlife incident is £51.08.
In addition, and excluding time costs, the average financial cost of each dog attack to farmers was £697.33, while the average cost of each wildlife attack was £391.82. The biggest costs were the value of the lost sheep and (for dog attacks) the value of aborted lambs.
This study also shows the considerable emotional impact of some attacks on farmers - an aspect on which there has been very little previous research. Eighty per cent of farmers said the most recent dog attack had upset them a great deal or quite a lot and 70% said the most recent wildlife attack had upset them a great deal or quite a lot. Participants in the qualitative research emphasised the fact that they were, and had to be, resilient to dealing with traumatic incidents and shocking sights in their daily work, nonetheless the distress that attacks caused sheep farmers and their families was tangible. Beyond the immediate distress at seeing and dealing with their sheep's injuries, farmers described the loss of their livestock as "soul-destroying", explaining this with reference to the hard labour that goes into nurturing their sheep, and the pride they take in this.
Generally speaking, attacks by dogs tended to incite a stronger emotional response among farmers than those by wildlife. They felt a greater sense of anger and frustration because such attacks were not inevitable and were attributable to the irresponsibility of the humans involved. However, participants were also keen to differentiate between the effects of wildlife species such as foxes which they could control, and protected wildlife species such as eagles and badgers which they could not control. While the former were most common, it was the latter which bothered farmers the most. Participants conveyed a sense of great frustration and helplessness where they were affected by wildlife species which they had no legal right to control. They were also frustrated at public agencies such as Scottish Natural Heritage which they felt did not appreciate their problems or care about their interests.
Preventing dog attacks
There are two main types of dog incident: those involving dogs belonging to visitors to the area who are with their dogs at the time, and those involving dogs owned by local residents which are allowed to roam freely and are unaccompanied at the time. Somewhat different approaches may be needed to tackle each type of incident.
There is a need for more public education campaigns which inform dog owners about the risks that all dogs can pose to sheep, about sheep behaviour and reactions, and the impact on sheep (particularly pregnant ewes) of what might seem relatively minor incidents. Related to this, the qualitative research revealed a considerable amount of confusion among farmers about whether, and what signage was permissible in light of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (which farmers tended to refer to as the 'right to roam'). Clarity and advice on this issue would be beneficial.
There was strong support among farmers for increasing the penalties for failing to have a dog under control; for requirements to keep dogs on leads within defined areas; and for greater powers to remove dogs from those who fail to control them.
The findings indicate that only around a third of dog attacks are currently reported to the police. The qualitative research revealed very mixed experiences of the police and courts' response to attacks and, consequently, mixed views about whether it was worth reporting an incident. There was a perception that the level of understanding of the problem, and the extent to which it was prioritised, varied by area and by individual officer. This suggests a need to encourage farmers to report incidents, to raise awareness of the issue among police officers and to improve the consistency of the police response.
Preventing wildlife attacks
Farmers suggestions for preventing, or at least reducing, wildlife attacks were very much focused on controlling numbers of the predatory species that were problematic in their area. They were keen to point out that they did not wish to eliminate species that were causing problems - but to achieve what they would judge to be a better balance.
There was a perception that the Scottish Government and other relevant agencies (Scottish Natural Heritage, in particular) either did not understand the scale and impact of the problems, or prioritised other interests. This led to a considerable amount of frustration and cynicism.
There is clearly a potential tension here between the interests of sheep and sheep farmers and the desire to protect and enhance the diversity of wildlife species. The insights from this study on the impact of wildlife attacks can help inform what must be an ongoing dialogue.
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