Sheep attacks and harassment: research

Findings from survey research on sheep worrying and wildlife attacks on sheep.

2. Introduction and background


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 are also wider implications for industry groups (such as the National Farmers Union Scotland and the National Sheep Association) and public agencies (such as Police Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage) who expend time and resources on the issue.

There is a suggestion that attacks may be increasing and there is heightened publicity around the issues - particularly in relation to dog attacks. There has been a multi-agency campaign[4] to reduce dog attacks by the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime (SPARC) and Emma Harper, MSP, has proposed a bill[5] 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. This is because much of the evidence is either indirect or incomplete (such as insurance claims data or incidents reported to the police), based on small-scale surveys, or simply anecdotal. The considerable impact of sheep attacks on farmers is widely recognised, but little research has thus far explored its scope and nature. The impact has also predominantly been explored from an exclusively financial perspective, rather than the potential time and emotional impacts on affected farmers. Further, very little of the existing evidence focuses on Scotland specifically.

The Scottish Government therefore commissioned research - involving a large-scale, representative survey of sheep farmers and follow-up qualitative research - to provide up-to-date and robust data on the scale of the problems, the impact and views on potential mitigation measures.

This report presents the findings from that research. The remainder of this chapter provides some further background information based on previous research and other existing data. Chapter 2 describes the methods used in the current research and the remaining chapters set out the key findings.

Existing evidence on dog attacks

On the basis of insurance claims in 2015, NFU mutual estimated that 18,500 livestock (in the UK) had been killed by dogs, costing £1.1m (up 35% on the previous year).[6] This had risen further to £1.6m by 2017. Their claims figures indicate that dog attacks on sheep and cattle in Scotland quadrupled in the last two years and are running at an all-time high (over £300,000 a year).[7] Again, however, this data does not provide the full picture: our survey found that the vast majority (96%) of farmers do not make insurance claims when they experience losses as a result of dog attacks (see section 7).

SheepWatch UK, a voluntary body that is encouraging farmers to report all cases of dogs worrying sheep, have estimated that, UK-wide, 15,000 sheep are killed annually, at a total cost of more than £2M. The National Sheep Association also believes dog attacks on sheep are becoming more frequent. It estimates that 20 to 25 per cent of its members have experienced dog attacks on flocks.[8]

Impact on sheep

When the Farm Animal Welfare Council's five freedoms were considered by a consensus of expert opinion, dog-worrying or the use of aggressive farm dogs was considered as a breach of 'freedom from fear and distress'.[9]

Loose dogs may chase sheep, separating the flock and lambs from mothers; they may cause traumatic wounds that can lead to death, or they may induce stress related issues, such as abortion.

Dog bite wounds can result in severe lacerations, open wounds with ripped skin, soft tissue bruising and crushing injuries as well as extensive damage to internal organs and bacterial contamination. Though there is limited detailed UK data on individual case outcomes, out of 28 pet sheep admitted to two US veterinary hospitals following dog attacks over a ten-year period, 50% either died or were euthanised. In the whole study there were 62 animals (sheep, goats and camelids) presented: injuries were recorded in the head in 50% of cases, the neck in 66%, perineal area in 21%, thorax in 19%, abdomen in 18% and extremities in 44%. Complications developed in 82% of animals.[10]

In pregnant sheep, parturition (labour) is initiated by an increase in the concentrations of foetal cortisol. Via the transfer of cortisol across the placenta, high levels of maternal cortisol irreversibly initiates parturition and terminates the pregnancy.[11] Exposure to humans and dogs has been shown to significantly increase heart rate and decrease vocalisation, both indicators of stress[12],[13]. There is also an increase in cortisol in sheep in response to short term stressors that include exposure to novel situations, management and handling procedures or restraint[14],[15] as well significant increases in response to barking dogs.[16]

Behavioural responses of sheep to the threat of predation include increased vigilance (with a characteristic posture of head up, neck rigid, ears alert and forward, frozen still and staring in the direction of the threat), flocking tightly together, flight to cover and the inhibition of usual behaviours once refuge has been reached. These anti-predator responses are a combination of both innate and learned behaviour with the different level of reaction for different breeds, age and category of sheep[17],[18]. The varied response by different sheep breeds appears to be on a continuum related to domestication. The more lowland or intensively reared breeds (e.g. Suffolk, Texel) respond less dramatically to the risk from predators due in part to their larger natural social group sizes and shorter periods of isolation at parturition compared to hill breeds (e.g. Scottish Black face, Cheviot) which are themselves less responsive than primitive breeds (e.g. Soay) or indeed wild sheep. In turn, the lowland breeds have the shortest flight distance when disturbed compared with the more primitive breeds, and are more likely to undertake behaviour such as vocalisation that would pose a high risk in the presence of a predator.[19]

The probability of sheep-chasing differs between dog breeds, with studies suggesting a higher likelihood in typical 'hunting' breeds, and age of dog, with a higher likelihood in younger dogs. Dogs lacking previous opportunity to chase sheep showed a higher attack frequency, and dogs showing generally low levels of fearfulness (e.g. towards gunshots or unfamiliar people) and high levels of aggression were the most probable sheep chasers.[20]

Prevention measures

In terms of measures to address attacks by dogs, advice issued to farmers by Police Scotland and farming bodies, has focused predominantly on encouraging them to secure their boundaries and put signs up on gateways and on key roads and paths alerting dog owners to the presence of sheep and lambs in their fields, and the danger posed by dogs.

The most recent SPARC campaign aimed to highlight the reality of livestock attacks and ensure dog owners understand the distressing nature of attacks, as well as the emotional and financial impacts such incidents can have, not just on farmers but on everyone having to deal with the aftermath.

Oxley et al (2017)[21] note that, while current warning signs and other prevention materials tend to focus on the dangers of fines and prosecution and on sheep welfare, an increased focus on the dangers to dogs, in terms of being shot or having a destruction order placed on them, may help to increase owner concern (although this may not help foster better relationships between dog owners and farmers). Oxley et al also highlight the potential benefit of measures that encourage compliance with social norms, as used in prevention materials aimed at encouraging dog owners to clean up their dogs' faeces.

Waters (2017)[22], meanwhile, has suggested there is scope for greater targeting of prevention materials at dog owners within veterinary surgeries and the use of electronic collars has been found to be useful in some dog breeds.[23] Aversion techniques for dogs, such as the use of taste-aversion bait was not found to be helpful.[24]

Existing evidence on wildlife attacks and predation

The scale of the problem and impact on sheep

Like attacks by dogs, sheep predation by wildlife - including foxes, predatory birds and badgers - is thought to be a growing problem in Scotland, reflecting the changing prevalence and geographical distribution of the predator populations concerned. The populations of both eagle species and ravens have expanded in recent years, with sea eagle numbers expected to grow exponentially in the short term, and conflict issues are only likely to increase over time[25],[26].

There is also good evidence to support a substantial increase in the size of the badger population in Scotland since the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act.[27] At the same time there has been an increase in claims that badgers predate lambs.

Predation particularly affects lambs, so has implications for the sustainability of flocks. However, there are limited recent empirical studies of the issue in Scotland; a situation that may in part reflect the difficulties involved in establishing causality in some sheep/lamb mortality.

Predators preferentially kill lambs, juveniles, females and individuals with reduced movement capabilities in both wild and domestic sheep populations.[28] Sheep are at particular risk of predation at particular times of year (e.g. lambing) or following particular husbandry practices (e.g. gathering for shearing).[29]

Marquiss et al (2002)[30] explored the impact of white-tailed eagles on sheep farming in Mull. They identified good evidence that white-tailed eagles killed some live lambs (as opposed to simply scavenging on carcasses), including larger 'viable' lambs. Based on their findings, they calculated that the white-tailed eagle population on Mull killed between 33 and 37 lambs each year - a level that "could not have been damaging to sheep farming on a broad scale but […] does not preclude damage on a small spatial scale." The Scottish Agricultural Science Agency's 2003 investigation into reported losses by golden eagles on Benbecula found that these did occur, but accounted for a relatively low proportion of losses compared to other causes (1-3%).[31]

In a study of fox management in three different areas of England in 1995, 24-60% of farmers reported predation by foxes during the previous year. As an average percentage loss of lambs, fox predation accounted for less than 1% (range 0-28.6%). Species accused of predation were corvid birds (49), badgers (24), buzzards (7), domestic dog (1) and mink (1) with the number in brackets indicating the number of farmers citing.[32]

Predators in two small areas in the west of Scotland, Ardnish and Drimmin, in the late 1970s, were identified as fox (1-16), badger (0-7), eagle (0-1 pair), buzzard (1-2 pairs), raven (1-2 pairs) and crow (6-22 pairs).[33] Foxes killed up to 1.8% of lambs born. Both foxes and eagles were found mainly to kill lambs at 1-5 days old and there is some evidence that lambs born to younger mothers were more at risk. This study considered that lamb predation provided foxes with only a small proportion of their food and that it was very rare to see actual predation. They used the following as a guide to distinguish predation and scavenging:

1. Evidence of predation by fox

2. Evidence of scavenging by fox

Strong smell of fox urine or fresh fox scats near

Fox urine on the carcass may indicate little edible food left or territory marking

Wounds at throat & nape - puncture wounds on opposing surfaces and damage to bones, particularly the second and third cervical vertebrae, may be disarticulated in small lamb

Nose, ears or tail bitten off

Extensive haemorrhage at the neck, usually blood on the fleece

Head bitten off

Large tears from the hind leg to or through the rib cage

Limbs disarticulated and long bones bitten through: spine broken with some vertebrae missing or fully bitten in two in small lambs

This study considered that lamb-killing by eagles was rarely seen although, anecdotally, seen more often than killing by fox. Predation or scavenging by eagles was identified by: 1. Plucked wool scattered around the carcass for about a metre. 2. Talon or beak holes deeply penetrating the skull at mid-crown near the proximate end of the mandible and nape. 3. Tears along abdomen and thorax with ribs broken off. 4. Eagle feathers or pellets near the carcass.

In a separate study on two Scottish farms (1993-1996), confirmed losses due to foxes were 0.2% and 0.6% with maximum loss due to foxes up to 1.8%. There was an increased chance that a lamb that was killed by foxes was born into a litter rather than being a single. This study concluded that fox predation was a relatively unimportant cause of death of lambs and of low overall financial impact.[34]

Prevention and mitigation measures

In terms of measures to address predation, existing statutory provision provides some scope for farmers to control and shoot predators. They can act directly (or indirectly through, for example, a Fox Control Club) to control foxes, and they can shoot and trap crows under a general licence. They must apply to Scottish Natural Heritage for an individual licence to control ravens.

Beyond this, a range of predator-specific measures have been suggested in the literature. In their study of white-tailed eagles on Mull, for example, Marquiss et al proposed measures ranging from removing factors predisposing lambs to predation by improving ewe nutrition and reducing tick infestation; to scaring devices and close-shepherding; and the use of feeding sites for white-tailed eagles in late winter to encourage them to nest as remotely as possible from lambing areas.

Farmers living in areas with established white-tailed eagle problems can participate in a management scheme that helps mitigate losses (, although no such equivalent scheme exists for golden eagles.

Overseas, protection by guardian dogs has been shown to be effective primarily due to their shepherding and boisterous vocalisations that encourage the sheep to flock together.[35] Technological options have also been considered (e.g. global navigation satellite) to quantify the behavioural responses of sheep during simulated predation events[36] or an intelligent wireless sensor network which monitors the vital signs in the sheep and detects collective stress indicators.[37]



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