Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Last week I began the sorry tale of how our much-loved golden retriever, Milo, and Jack Russell terrier, Paddy, stayed out overnight and caused carnage in a field of sheep.

A man found them and hid them in his barn, to save them from the shotguns of the farmers out looking for them, but when his wife later returned them to us, we faced some stark choices.

We had to do the right thing: by the farmer whose livestock had been killed and, indeed, by the farming community in which we live, but also by ourselves and our children, and for that matter by the dogs, who had not turned overnight into crazed killers. They were still the sweet-natured pair we had raised from puppyhood; they had just been acting as dogs sometimes will in a pack situation.

But when you live in the country, it is important not to be constrained by townie sensibilities. The townie way would be to compensate the farmer and make damn sure such a thing never happened again, perhaps by erecting an electric fence. The country code dictates otherwise.

We have a friend, a farmer, who shot his beloved family dog simply for chasing sheep, let alone attacking them. Sheep-worrying, as it is known, is considered a heinous business hereabouts. In lambing season especially, people's livelihoods are at stake.

I made an appointment to have both dogs put down. But just before I was due to set off, so that we could get it done while the children were at school, the vet phoned. He'd heard the story and didn't think that either of the animals should be destroyed.

Bluntly, he said, the blame belonged with us for letting them escape our garden, not with the dogs.

I thought about volunteering to be put down myself, but it was no time even for gallows humour. The vet explained that a terrier's brain and a retriever's brawn had been a combustible combination. "It's like teenagers," he said. "One on his own can be polite and charming; several together can get up to all sorts."

He was a beacon of measured common sense in what I think I can fairly describe as an emotional maelstrom. We might have to consider getting one or both dogs re-homed, he said, but killing them wasn't the answer. In fact, he would refuse to do it.

In the meantime, there was still the question of the farmer's loss to deal with. Anxious to do the right thing, I drove to the scene of the massacre to see whether I could help.

Milo and Paddy had killed five sheep and fatally wounded eight more. A further 20 or so were bloodied. It was not, to put it mildly, a pretty sight. I helped manoeuvre one distressed ewe into the back of the farmer's truck; its throat was ripped and its guts were trailing on the grass.

None of which hardened me against Milo and Paddy - the country code that demands tough measures against rampaging dogs also dictates that nobody should get sentimental about sheep - but made me realise that there must not be an iota of possibility of either dog re-offending. They would both have to be re-homed well away from sheep country.

The children were predictably distraught at this news. My 10-year-old son, Joe, started emptying his money box to help pay the farmer, in the belief that it would make things better. My 12-year-old daughter, Eleanor, sobbed into Milo's fur for most of the evening.

The next day, we put the dogs into kennels while we could find them new homes, and the following weekend, on the principle that if you fall off your bike you should jump straight back on again, we all drove to Kidderminster and paid £475 for an 11-week-old retriever puppy, whom we named Fergus, and who will end up with the equivalent of a PhD in leaving sheep alone, no matter how much it costs - although several people have told us that the lesson can be cheaply taught, simply by confining a puppy in a barn for an hour with a ram.

We've chosen the less brutal tactics of Bert Harris, the dog trainer. I will keep you posted.

'Tales Of The Country', by Brian Viner, is on sale now (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

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