Worry about shooting worrying dogs

Dogs worrying sheep is an ongoing, and seemingly increasing, rural crime. It is estimated that 15,000 sheep were killed by dogs in the UK during 2016. This has led to the establishment of the SheepWatch website and an annual survey being undertaken by the National Sheep Association. Most recently, just before Easter, the “Sheep-Wise” campaign was launched in Scotland. With the fields full of young lambs and heavily pregnant ewes, it seems a good time to refresh ourselves on the rather complex law surrounding the issue of shooting dogs that are worrying livestock.

Contrary to popular belief, farmers do not have the legal right to shoot dogs that are worrying their livestock. What they do have is the legal defence for such action. All property, including dogs, enjoys a level of protection under the law, so shooting a dog can amount to criminal damage. If a farmer is to rely on this defence, he would need to show that he believed that his livestock was in immediate danger and that his actions were reasonable. What constitutes “reasonable” will depend on the facts.

He would also run the risk of being sued for damages by the dog’s owner for trespass to goods. In which case, he would need to rely on the defence available under the Animals Act 1971.  To do so he must show that he believed on reasonable grounds that either: the dog was worrying or about to worry the livestock and there were no other reasonable means of ending or preventing it; or, that the dog had been worrying livestock, had not left the vicinity and was not under anyone’s control and there were no practicable means of finding out to whom it belonged. There is a strict requirement to inform the police within 48 hours, and any failure will prevent subsequent reliance on the defense in civil proceedings.

The use of a rifle or other Section 1 firearm is likely to lead to the revocation of the Firearms License as it is unlikely that shooting dogs will be listed as a reason to hold the firearm. Use of a shotgun could result in a wounded dog and prosecution by the RSPCA under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. If the farmer pursues the dog, he could be liable for trespassing with a firearm. Whatever the situation, it is likely that the police would review whether the farmer was suitable to own a firearm.

All in all, while shooting a dog worrying livestock may seem a suitable solution, it could cause greater problems than it solves. It should only be seen as a last resort.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

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