Farmer on quad-bike herds sheep in Glen Fruin. Pictures by Bill Heaney
By Bill Heaney
Where sheep may safely graze. That place should be on the slops of peaceful Scottish hills and valleys including Loch Lomondside, Glen Fruin, rural West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute.
However, these hills are not always safe places for livestock and MSP Emma Harper has launched a campaign in the Scottish Parliament to update and strengthen the law around livestock worrying, which is a horrendous event in which sheep and other farm animals are chased, attacked or killed by out-of-control dogs.
Emma told MSPs: “In many cases, sheep and other livestock are mauled to death or left with horrendous injuries and in extreme distress, often meaning that they must be euthanised.
“Being chased can also traumatise animals, leading pregnant ewes to abort. In addition to the emotional impact that the attacks have on the farmers and their families, there are often substantial financial losses. In some cases, pedigree sheep worth many thousands of guineas can be killed.
Figures show that Scottish partnership against rural crime reported that between April 2018 and March 2019 that there were 321 attacks on livestock reported to Police Scotland.
The MSP added: “We know that attacks on livestock are under-reported. The welfare of all animals is important and the evidence suggests that livestock attacks are a growing problem, which warrants legislative change.
“The current livestock worrying legislation, which dates back to 1953, is outdated and no longer fit for purpose.
“Current deterrents, as set out in the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, are insufficient and need to be updated.
“The bill [which I am introducing] provides additional powers for the investigation and enforcement of the offence of livestock worrying, and will increase the maximum penalties that are available to the courts.”
The bill also extends the definition of “livestock” to include additional types of farmed animals, such as alpacas, llamas, deer and buffalo, which are not afforded legal protection under the 1953 act.
Emma added: “It is clear from my consultation, which received more than 600 full responses, that the term “livestock worrying” does not adequately reflect the seriousness of the offence.
“The bill renames the offence from ‘worrying’ livestock to ‘attacking or worrying’ livestock. The word ‘worrying’ has a different meaning today from its meaning in 1953; the word ‘attacking’ is much more definitive and clearer.”
Sheep and cattle are big business for farmers around Loch Lomondside, Glen Fruin and Drymen. Pictures by Bill Heaney
Penalties are being proposed to increase the maximum penalty to 12 months’ imprisonment or a fine of £40,000, or both and only the police will be authorised to carry out any livestock attack investigations, and a warrant will be required for them to enter premises to seize a dog.
There are no compensation orders in the bill. Compensation is already available as an option to the courts and, as the committee heard, compensation has been awarded in some cases.
Ms Harper appealed for support for new legislation because “that is the right thing to do to ensure that Scotland’s hard-working farmers and crofters and those involved in agriculture have greater legal protection from attacks on their livestock by out-of-control dogs, which can be financially and emotionally devastating.”
Tory MSP Edward Mountain, whose family own a farming partnership, said he was pleased that parts of the bill which included penalties in general were being scrutinised as was how an order disqualifying a person from bringing a dog on to agricultural land would be enforced or monitored.
The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, Ben Macpherson, said: “I think that those changes are a useful modernisation of the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 and, in support of those principles, I agree with the intention to allow for future amendments to the definition of livestock as farming practices evolve.
“The main focus of the bill is to increase the maximum penalties that are available for the offence of livestock worrying, which is a worthwhile aim. However, as Emma Harper indicated, to ensure consistency with the new penalties that are now available for many animal welfare and wildlife crime offences, and to allow the courts to impose appropriate penalties, depending on the particular facts and circumstances of the case.”
He added: “It is my intention to lodge an amendment at stage 2 that will increase the maximum available penalties on imprisonment from six months to 12 months and/or a £40,000 fine.
“The vast majority of people in Scotland treat livestock with respect and care, but the small minority who do not must be held accountable through consequences that appropriately reflect the severity of their crime. Increasing the maximum penalties that are available will allow the courts to impose appropriate sentences, once they have considered the facts and circumstances of each case.
“Furthermore, I agree that there is merit in the bill’s proposal on disqualification orders, which seeks to give the convicting court the power to prevent people who are convicted of the offence to be disqualified from owning or keeping a dog for such a period as the court thinks fit.
“Such orders may be an effective way of dealing with certain offenders, particularly in cases where there appears to be a high probability of re-offending. However, it should be acknowledged that the enforcement and monitoring of such orders might be challenging, and we would not expect them to be appropriate in every case.”
Tory Jamie Halcro Johnston, a partner in a farming business and a member of NFU Scotland, said: ” Dogs are mentioned in the title of the bill, but the real problem is inadequate and often reckless supervision by owners who allow such situations to occur. For far too long, there has been a strong belief among the rural sector that little has been done to safeguard its livestock.
“The member’s bill consultation identified not only the scale of the problem, with dozens of offences being reported each year, but its increasing prevalence. We also know from NFU surveys that a great many offences go unreported.
“When attacks occur, the financial costs can be considerable, but it is just as important that we reflect on the serious detrimental impact on the welfare of the animals that are involved. I suspect that many people do not realise just how easy it is for dog worrying incidents to result in harm to sheep and other animals, or how much damage an uncontrolled dog can cause.”
Sporting dogs: Concerns have been raised regarding the exemption that the 1953 act provides for dogs that are participating in a hunt.
Labour’s Colin Smyth touched on hunting and fox hounds and how the new legislation would respond to that. He said: “I want to highlight the concerns that have been raised regarding the exemption that the 1953 act provides for dogs that are participating in a hunt, which means that they are not required to be kept under control when they are in a field with sheep. I welcome the clarification that the bill proposes in limiting the application of that exemption if and to the extent that the dog is performing the role in question.
“The Scottish steering committee of the UK Centre for Animal Law raised that issue and pointed out that numerous incidents have been observed in Scotland where packs of foxhounds have been hunting in proximity to flocks of sheep, which have caused sheep to panic and run.
“OneKind called for the exemption for hunting to be revoked altogether, and rightly pointed out that packs of hounds in the vicinity of sheep can cause them considerable stress.”
Retired police officer John Finnie, Green Party MSP, said: “Notwithstanding the widespread support for the bill, if the existing legislation does not, as we have heard, enjoy much respect among crofters and farmers, what in the bill will fundamentally change that mindset?
“What will change the priority or otherwise that Police Scotland gives to the matter? I certainly would not want legislation that would have Police Scotland not fulfilling its obligation to investigate crime.”