This first nationally-representative study in Scotland into the prevalence of attacks on sheep by dogs and wildlife has found:
- 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. (It is worth noting that attacks by a group of (more than two) dogs were extremely rare).
- It is possible to extrapolate from these figures to produce an estimate of the total number of incidents. While this estimate gives some indication of the potential scale of the problem, it should be treated with considerable caution as it is subject to wide confidence intervals and the limitations of any survey of this nature (e.g. the potential for non-response bias and recall inaccuracies). Bearing those caveats in mind, the estimated total number of incidents of dogs chasing or attacking sheep in Scotland in the period 1 May 2018 to 30 April 2019 is around 7,000, with the true figure likely to be within the range of around 4,500 to 10,000.
- 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.
- It is possible to extrapolate from these figures to produce an estimate of the total number of incidents. Again, however, this estimate is subject to wide confidence intervals and the limitations of any survey of this nature (e.g. the potential for non-response bias and recall inaccuracies). Moreover, most wildlife incidents are unobserved and farmers are generally only aware of incidents where the aftermath (e.g. the disappearance of a lamb or an injured sheep) is obvious. Bearing those caveats in mind, but to give some indication of the potential scale of the problem, the estimated total number of incidents of wildlife attacking, chasing or preying on sheep in Scotland in the period 1 May 2018 to 30 April 2019 is around 50,000, with the true figure likely to be in the range of around 45,000 to 55,000. 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.
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 of 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.
The estimated total cost to sheep farmers across Scotland each year is therefore around £5,500,000 for dog attacks and £22,500,000 for wildlife attacks. Again, these estimates should be treated with considerable caution as they are subject to wide confidence intervals and the limitations of any survey of this nature. It should also be noted that these are the estimated costs for sheep farmers only - they do not include the costs incurred by other agencies, for example, the police, courts or Scottish Natural Heritage.
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 farmers said the most recent dog attack had upset them a great deal or quite a lot and 70% percent 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. Indeed, the survey results showed that more experienced farmers and those with more sheep were just as upset by incidents. Beyond the immediate distress at seeing and dealing with their sheep's distressing 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 was anecdotal evidence that farmers and dog owners tend to have very different ideas about what dog behaviour constitutes a risk to sheep. There is thus 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 what, if any, 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, perhaps from SPARC or other organisations.
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, 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 both 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.
There is a problem
Thanks for your feedback