Spring is in the air and it won’t be long until lambs frolicking in the fields is a common sight. Sadly, this is also the time of year when sheep and lambs often suffer stress, injury or even death at the hands of walkers. There are some really simple guidelines you can follow when walking near sheep to ensure you don’t contribute to this growing problem…
Lambs frolicking in fields is one of my favourites signs of spring. There’s something utterly adorable about the innocence of lambs, like all young animals, as they explore the world and find joy and fun in every discovery. Surely the least we walkers can do, is to allow the sheep and lambs to have a safe, healthy and stress-free life. The fields are their home whilst we are only temporary visitors after all.
Sadly, the lives of sheep and lambs are not as simple and straightforward as they might be. Stressed sheep can become ill and in the worst cases stress can even cause ewes to abort their unborn lambs. Diseases can be transmitted by dog poo left in pastures or even the mud carried on walkers’ boots. Gates left open or unsecured can lead to lambs becoming separated from their mothers, or even killed on the roads.
Most worrying, reports of dogs chasing or attacking livestock are on the rise. Hard statistics are difficult to come by – cases of sheep worrying aren’t always reported to the police, and the police don’t record them in a uniform way – but experts agree that the problem is on the rise. NFU Mutual, the main insurers for farmers, reports that payouts for livestock worrying increased by 67 percent from 2015 to 2017, with an estimated cost to agriculture of £1.6m. Between January and April, when pregnant ewes and new born lambs are often grazing on low-lying pasture in areas more accessible to walkers, the cost of claims to NFU Mutual more than double. In one single and particularly distressing case, 116 sheep (many pregnant), died at West Dean in West Sussex in 2016 after a dog chased the flock.
It's worth pointing out that it’s not just big, aggressive-looking dogs that attack livestock – well-behaved family pets can worry sheep or cattle. And once a dog has attacked livestock, there is a high probability that it will strike again.
However, if you can socialise puppies with farm animals (in a controlled training environment) before they are three months old, the risk of them going on to worry livestock is massively reduced. That is exactly what we did with Bobbie Poodle the iFootpath dog – she passed her sheep socialisation training with flying colours. Yet still we don’t take any risks with her around livestock, she stays firmly on a lead in all grass pastures where there is even a chance of encountering sheep.
You may have noticed a common theme here… all these stresses and injuries to sheep and lambs are entirely preventable with just some modified behaviour from walkers and dog owners. Here’s some simple guidelines you can follow to do your bit…
For all walkers…
- Remember to close and secure all gates behind you as you enter or leave pastures
- When walking through fields of sheep, walk quietly and calmly – don’t make sudden movements or noises that could startle the flock
- Do not walk between a lamb and its mother; make sure the lambs see you coming so that they can safely return to their mothers before you get too close
- Do not leave any litter in pastures as this can injure or poison livestock
- Clean your walking boots regularly to prevent spreading disease
Extra guidance for dog owners…
- Always keep your dog on a short lead in grass pastures where there are sheep
- Always check carefully for livestock before you enter a field
- Keep your distance; ensure you give sheep a wide-berth to avoid causing stress
- Pick up any dog poo from pastures and worm your dog regularly to avoid spreading parasites
- Familiarise your dog with livestock from a young age through an approved training course
- Never assume you dog’s sweet nature means it won’t attack sheep – it’s simply its genetic heritage
21 February 2018