They had taken to disappearing for an hour or two, usually into the woods at the back of our house, but they always came back when whistled and we rather liked the idea of them having little doggie adventures on their own. This time, however, they had not returned by nightfall. We were desperately anxious about them, and the only moment of levity was when we stood in the back garden yelling their names. Our friends Paul and Jacky, musicians who frequently play with Elvis Costello, were staying with us, and Paul pointed out that two of Costello's roadies are called Paddy and Milo, and that he kept expecting a pair of hefty Irishmen to emerge from the trees, explaining that "they'd just been moving the feckin' amps".
Anyway, just after 9pm we had a little Jack Russell yap - Paddy - followed by the basso-profundo bark of a golden retriever - Milo. They seemed delighted to be home and almost as relieved as we were, so naively we thought that it wouldn't happen again. The following Monday, however, it did. They took off from the garden in the afternoon and this time weren't back even by the following morning.
We were frantic. We reported them missing to the police and the Hereford Council dog warden, and called our friend Roger, who farms 1,000 acres alongside us. He hadn't seen them, he said, although he had found a bloodstained ewe, which had obviously been attacked by a powerful creature, very possibly a golden retriever. Hell. Milo spends hours gazing benignly at Roger's sheep; the thought had never occurred that he might attack them.
A few hours later, Roger phoned with a doom-laden tone in his voice. He had come across a whole field of slain and wounded ewes and lambs, although they weren't his own. There were men out with shotguns looking for the miscreants, he reported.
Shortly afterwards, we got another call, from a chap who lives in a hamlet a couple of miles away. Was it true that we were missing a retriever and a terrier? Yes, it was. And did we know that they had apparently attacked some sheep? Yes, we did. "Well," he said, "I have your dogs. I've hidden them in my barn because I don't want to see them shot. My wife and I think you should decide what is to become of them."
An hour later, Milo and Paddy arrived home in the back of a van, looking, of all ironic expressions, distinctly sheepish, and carrying an unmistakeable ovine stink. Milo also had blood on his fur. He was bang - although mercifully not BANG! - to rights.
Roger suggested, as sensitively as he could, that Milo at least might have to be destroyed. Once a dog has tasted the warm blood of a sheep, it will re-offend, he said.
We said that we could put up electric fences, or confine them to a run, or perhaps give Paddy away on the basis that two dogs act as a pack. But we bought Milo as an eight-week-old puppy on the day we moved into our house. The children adored him. How could we have him put down?
Roger looked as aghast as we did. No matter what the circumstances, he wouldn't feel comfortable knowing that Milo was living near his livestock, he said. We understood. In sheep-farming country, it is a stigma to own a sheep-killing dog, as much of a no-no as it would be for a bank to employ a known embezzler, or a school to hire a convicted paedophile.
What to do? Even if we were to give them away, it might merely be handing the problem to someone else. With a heavy heart, I phoned the vet in Leominster to make an appointment for both dogs. If the dreadful deed could be done before the children got home from school, then perhaps we could tell them that Milo and Paddy had been taken away to live happily somewhere else.
To be continued.
'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is on sale now (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)
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