Glen Fruin, sheep farming is big business in the hills between Helensburgh and Loch Lomond. Pictures by Bill Heaney
By Bill Heaney
Where sheep may safely graze – and llamas, alpacas and buffaloes too.
That will be Scotland in this 21st century following a new law passed unanimously in the Holyrood parliament on Thursday.
It is a feather in the cap of Emma Harper MSP, who told colleagues: “I am weel chuffed that the bill, which I have worked on for more than four years, has had unanimous cross-party support and is the final bill that will be passed during this parliamentary session.”
Ms Harper said the bill had come about because she heard about “many horrific incidents of dogs attacking sheep and kye. In pursuing those, I discovered that the current legislation, which is now 68 years old, was seriously outdated and needed to be modernised.
“I also discovered that incidents of livestock attack are under-reported by farmers and crofters. Police Scotland said in its evidence to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee that the auld law has not kept pace with evolving practices within the farming industry, some terminology is outdated plus it does not provide sufficient deterrent that could influence an owner or person in charge of a dog to act with greater responsibility”.
She added: “It is now lambing season. Fields are full of pregnant ewes and new lambs and it is distressing to see photographs of carnage of sheep and lambs killed in attacks by out-of-control dogs. Those tragic incidents dramatically highlight why the bill is needed.
“The bill extends the definition of ‘livestock’ to include llamas, alpacas and buffaloes, which were not covered by the 1953 act. It also expands and modernises the definition of “worrying” to include to ‘chase, attack, and kill.’
“It also gives additional powers to the police to allow them to seize and detain a dog suspected of livestock attack on agricultural land for the purposes of identifying and securing evidence of the offence.
“The bill will increase the maximum penalties for that crime, bringing them in line with the animal welfare legislation introduced by the Government last year.
“During the progress of the bill, we heard and saw evidence of the devastating financial and emotional impact that incidents of livestock worrying and attack can have on both animals and farmers. Those attacks continue to increase in number, as recent media reports show.
“During the Covid lockdown, we have seen how important it is for our physical and mental health to be able to access our wonderful countryside, which more people are doing.
“I encourage everyone to spend time in nature, enjoying the benefits it gives, and to do so responsibly. I am a dog owner and I get great pleasure from accessing the countryside with my twa dugs.
“The bill will make a real difference to farmers and will, I hope, help to educate everyone about the importance of keeping our dogs under control around livestock.
“I hope to see a year-on-year reduction in incidents of worrying and attack and a rise in responsible access to our stunning countryside.
I welcome the cross-party way in which the bill has been taken forward and the suggested changes and amendments from committee members and from the Government.
“We have a piece of legislation that will really make a difference to farmers across Scotland and will promote responsible access to our braw and bonnie countryside.”
Rural Affairs Minister Ben Macpherson said Scottish ministers are keen to emphasise that responsibility for investigating the criminal offence of livestock worrying shall remain solely with the police, with assistance from local authorities or the Scottish SPCA as appropriate in the circumstances.
Throughout the bill process, they have worked with key partners and stakeholders to clarify roles and responsibilities and to increase understanding about what private vets may be asked to do in relation to investigating livestock worrying incidents. As a result, he was able to advise Parliament that a simple protocol for vets in private practice will be drawn up, and it will be endorsed and publicised by all relevant parties, and made available to police officers.
That protocol will be available before the new powers to have dogs examined are expected to come into force later this year, and will give suitable prominence to the point that Police Scotland, as the investigating authority, will pay for any investigative work that it requests.
He added: “There is no doubt that farmers and crofters care deeply about the welfare of their livestock, and the bill will help to ensure that all animals that are commonly farmed in Scotland receive the protection from attack that they deserve.”
Heavy fines and even prison sentences may soon be imposed on dog owners who fail to obey the new law.