Once a dog has tasted blood: country

What happens if your family pet becomes a sheep killer? By Daniel Butler
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The Independent Online
Bracken is on death row. Our pet has been judged a killer. It remains for us to dispose of him. We find ourselves crushed between our squeamish urban upbringing and the realities of our new rural lifestyle. Our dog is both a gentle creature who plays with our toddler, and a hunter with the instincts of a wolf

Bracken is a lurcher, a mongrel running dog, born to catch rabbits and hares. When we got him he was small enough to nestle in my palm. He grew fast, and was greyhound-sized when we left the rat race for our slice of Welsh self-sufficient heaven. He came into his own when our son, Jack, learnt to walk, and used him as an animated Zimmer frame. Now he is now the two-year-old's best friend - endlessly patient as he is hauled backwards by the tail, forced to sit on a whim or made to jump obstacle courses on babbling command.

Nor has he been short of admirers among our Welsh neighbours. In his first summer he won two rosettes at agricultural shows and prompted respectful nudges by setting about numerous rabbits and squirrels with gusto.

All this was transformed last week, however, when the local farmer found a partially-eaten ewe near our house. Two others survived with deep gashes to their back legs. Although no one witnessed the crime, the circumstantial evidence pointed to Bracken. The culprit was a big dog - the bite marks indicated this - and the attack took place miles from anyone but us. If this weren't enough, for the first time in three years, the previous day we had seen Bracken playfully herding sheep in the self-same field.

"Once a sheep killer, always a sheep killer," was the farmer's reaction. "You'll never cure him. Put him down, the quicker the better - I'll do it, if you want."

Anywhere else, detection, verdict and sentence might have been more measured, but this is rural Wales, where 11 million sheep are the backbone of the economy. Anything that poses a threat to them is shot or poisoned, while anyone harbouring their enemies is ostracised. Clear, decisive action was needed. But this was Bracken, and we were not prepared to surrender him meekly to summary justice.

So we ran through the alternatives. Could he be retrained, chaperoned and muzzled? This was ruled out. Almost everyone, from National Farmers' Union to lurcher rescue centres, says it is impossible to put the genie back into the bottle once a dog tastes blood. And the local farmers are certainly convinced of this, so any belief that he could be retrained was immaterial.

As news of this - most heinous of canine sins - spreads, sooner or later he will be shot if he remains here. Until then the blame for every dead sheep in a 20-mile radius will be laid at our door. That leaves us two choices: give away our son's best friend, or sacrifice him on the altar of local opinion.

Worried, but not yet frantic, we rang round every acquaintance in non- sheep-farming parts where there was the slightest hope of a home. "He is young, but housetrained," we said in our pitch. "Wonderful with children, a good traveller - and you know how handsome he is."

There were no takers, although several hesitated. Some were put off by the thought of Bracken's daily exercise, others said he was too big, while another confessed to pregnancy and to being daunted by sharing what used to be a spacious flat with just one new arrival, let alone two. An ex- girlfriend and confirmed vegetarian came closest. She could cope with everything, except Bracken killing squirrels or rabbits in her local park.

So for the foreseeable future Bracken is confined to barracks. I informed the farmer of our decision to rehouse rather than execute the dog. To my surprise, he seemed positively relieved. "I once had to shoot one of my own dogs and I still regret it," he said. "No one likes to see a dog killed. You're doing something about it, that's the main thing."