The horrific deaths of 116 sheep on a farm in West Sussex has highlighted the growing problem of sheep worrying in Britain as careless city dwellers increasingly visit the countryside with pets they fail to control, farmers say.
Earlier this month Gordon Wyeth, a sheep farmer, woke up to a horrific sight: 116 of his sheep, many of them pregnant as April’s lambing season approaches, were dead.
Although the cause has yet to be confirmed, police strongly suspect that sheep worrying was to blame, and that one or more dogs had penned the sheep into a corner at the West Dean Estate farm, near Chichester, so tightly that they panicked, trampling and smothering themselves to death.
“I feel numb really. There are so many dead animals and you just have to try and get them out of sight and put them out of your mind,” said Mr Wyeth.
Sheep worrying is not a new phenomenon. The author Thomas Hardy described a terrible scene in his 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd, when protagonist Gabriel Oak’s dog drives two hundred pregnant sheep over a precipice.
But modern-day farmers say the problem is increasing dramatically. Attacks on sheep are soaring, they say, as city-dwelling pet owners visit the countryside in increasing numbers, behaving in fields as they would in their local parks, unaware of the rules of the country. At the same time, urban development has increased canine populations around farms, farmers say.
Sheep worrying is when a dog chases, injures or kills a sheep. In its most obvious and common form, this involves a physical attack from a dog which mauls and bites the livestock. But dogs also herd the sheep together, either to drive them off a ledge or, more commonly, pen them into a corner.
The more the sheep are corralled, the more panic- stricken they become and they begin to trample and smother each other, often resulting in their deaths – a process that may take as little as a few minutes.
When the ewes are pregnant, as many of them are now in the run-up to the lambing season, or have recently given birth, they are even more vulnerable because their calcium and vitamin levels have become so depleted. This makes them so weak that a dog attack on a single sheep can cause so much anxiety for the rest of the flock that 50 per cent or more of the pregnant ewes will miscarry – and some can die in days from the stress of their fellow sheep’s death.
Left to roam off a lead, dogs can savagely attack sheep and other livestock or pen them into a corner so fiercely that they are frightened to death. This latest suspected sheep worrying incident highlights a trend which has seen the number of incidents reported in the UK soar from 691 in 2011 to 1,085 in 2015, according to research by the Farmers Guardian.
Most of these attacks were on sheep, which accounted for 1,051 of last year’s incidents – killing and injuring an estimated 18,500 livestock in total. And farmers fear the number of attacks could be much higher than the officialfigure, with many incidents going unreported.
“It’s quite difficult after all the effort and work that’s gone into them to find suddenly they’re not there anymore. And the locals are pretty upset having this right on their doorstep,” added Mr Wyeth, who has now had three separate attacks on his flock since the end of November.
The attacks typically occur when a dog escapes from a back garden, is taken off a lead during a walk or when the owner loses control of a retractable lead.
“I’ve kept sheep for 35 years and it’s definitely getting worse. There’s more urbanisation and more people are coming to the country,” said Mr Wyeth.
“A lot of them couldn’t care less. And if you challenge them, you’re between a rock and a hard place. Last year I got my gun out and told a dog owner, ‘put your dog on a lead mate, or I’ll have to shoot it’. He rang the police and said I threatened him with a gun and the police came rocking up. What are you supposed to do?” said Mr Wyeth.
Sergeant Tom Carter, the police officer in charge of the investigation into Mr Wyeth’s loss, has noticed a rise insuch cases. He says it is the unintended consequence of people doing things they haven’t done before in the fitness craze sweeping Britain.
“Transport links are getting better, so it’s easier to get into the country. And lifestyles are changing. We’re always seeing things in the press about keeping fit and people are getting out into the countryside to get some exercise,” said Sergeant Carter. “People who have never really gone walking before are getting activity-monitoring wristbands and going off on hikes. They have never been down the park and now they’re out on the South Downs.”
Experts say cases of malicious sheep worrying are almost non-existent. The trouble stems from dog owners’ ignorance about the damage their pets can cause to livestock.
“We have to educate dog owners about the damage their pets can do, we have to make irresponsible dog ownership socially unacceptable and we have to increase the enforcement of the law,” said Phil Stocker, head of the National Sheep Association.
Unless people control their dogs, experts say, we could see a lot more cases like that at West Dean Estate – or indeed Wessex, Hardy’s fictional setting where “Oak looked over the precipice. The ewes lay dead and dying at its foot – a heap of two hundred mangled carcasses, representing in their condition just now at least two hundred more.”