Lambing season is in full swing and whenever I’m out and about, I love spotting the little lambs gambolling about the fields like excitable toddlers in a playground.
I don’t think the North York Moors are unique in having sheep and lambs unhindered by walls and fences, but it is still pretty special to see them grazing freely across the land, or meandering along village greens in places like Hutton-le-Hole and Goathland.
The beauty of the moors and the Yorkshire Dales means they are a magnet for tourists and many visitors bring their pet dogs with them. Sadly, that can also bring with it a problem that is particularly distressing at this time of year – sheep worrying.
It saddens me to read that the issue has not improved with time, as my dad was writing about it in his column from 10th March 1979. A reader had had his dog shot in front of him by an angry farmer after it had run into a flock of sheep. He was highlighting the fact that, according to the law, a dog doesn’t actually have to attack sheep, but merely has to pose a possible threat, for the farmer to have the right to shoot it. Although I do pity the owner losing his pet, I can’t help but think that if it was on a lead, it would never have happened at all.
It’s not just visitors that are causing the problem though. Apparently, there has been a rise in unaccompanied dogs running amok among sheep, which is being put down to country residents letting their dogs out of their houses, unaware that they are finding their ways to areas of grazing livestock.
Educating dog-owners is one answer, and bodies like the North York Moors National Park, the police rural crime teams and farming and sheep organisations repeat the message each and every year.
But even though owners hear the message, some don’t think it applies to them. They fail to appreciate that their lovely, docile family pet can be a killer where sheep are concerned. All animals have the potential to be unpredictable, and when it comes to sheep, dogs can undergo a complete personality change. And I mean, ANY dog. Even yours.
I know this because I was once one of those people and have witnessed this unexpected, and quite shocking, personality transformation first hand. I was looking after a friend’s dog while she was away and, as it was a warm sunny day, decided to take my boys and the dog up to a lovely spot on the moors by a stream where we could picnic and the children could safely splash about in the water.
The dog was a quiet and submissive soul who I’d known since he was a puppy and I’d never seen an ounce of aggression in him. There were a few sheep about, but they were at a short distance away and as the dog had not shown any interest in them, I assumed it was safe to let him off the lead while we ate lunch.
I was wrong. A ewe on the search for fresh grass pottered into the dog’s view, and suddenly, he was off, snarling and barking at the poor startled sheep. I leapt up and after him and thankfully managed to get the dog back before he caught the ewe. Although no damage was done that time, had it been lambing season, the stress of being chased could have caused the ewe to abort if she’d been pregnant. That taught me a valuable lesson, that as well as you know your dog, there is something about sheep that can make them go a bit crazy.
I have seen pictures of sheep and lambs that have been caught by dogs, and the injuries are horrific, sometimes resulting in the animal being euthanised. Others have drowned after throwing themselves into rivers or lakes in a desperate attempt to escape.
We are not talking about just a few sheep here and there either. According the the famers’s insurance body, NFU Mutual, 2018 saw a 67% rise in attacks over the previous two years. Apart from the obvious distress of losing animals, the financial loss to farmers can run into many thousands of pounds.
So if you have a dog, no matter how docile and calm they are, remember, around sheep, they could be a killer.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th March and the Gazette & Herald on 6th March 2019