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Livestock Worrying: Sussex

Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kelly Tolhurst.)

When I was successful in securing this Adjournment debate on livestock worrying, I was questioned by some more metropolitan colleagues about what exactly livestock worrying is, with many references to sheep and Wales that I thought were rather unfair. I can inform the House and colleagues that livestock worrying usually involves dogs chasing and mauling sheep or other animals. The direct attack can cause death or severe injury and, in some cases, miscarriage. The stress of the event can cause great harm to the animals, particularly the young.

It is important to put on the record why I have secured the debate. Not only does Sussex have one of the highest rates of sheep worrying in the country, but my local authority, Brighton and Hove, has a municipal sheep flock, of which I believe the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) is a shepherdess and lookerer. Telscombe, a village in my constituency, also has a municipal sheep flock. The business is not just in private hands but in public hands, private hands and all hands—it affects us all.

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear—or perhaps he will not—that I am not standing up to make an impassioned call for the nationalisation of all sheep farming. I congratulate him on securing the debate and he raises an important point; there is more sheep worrying and livestock worrying in Sussex, where both his constituents and mine have the opportunity to walk into open countryside. There is more sheep worrying in Sussex in the average year than there is in the whole of Scotland, and that is not acceptable. I am glad that he secured the debate to raise the concerns of many of our farmers.

I entirely agree. It is also important to put on record the contribution made by farming, not only in Sussex but to our wider economy.

I declare an interest, as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union. Livestock worrying costs the farming community some £1.6 million a year, and in Northern Ireland, for instance, about 60% of dog-walkers are letting their dogs off the lead in the countryside. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more needs to be done to educate dog owners, so that they understand that all the responsibility lies at their feet and their dogs could be put down if they worry sheep or other animals?

I do agree. I shall be dealing with some questions and points that the National Farmers Union and my local farmers have raised with me, which I know have also been raised with a number of other Members.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is being very generous, and, as a Member who represents a largely urban constituency, he is also very brave. None of us has suggested that it is the residents of Brighton who are worrying the livestock in the Sussex area.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman supports the Take the Lead campaign, in which many of us became involved recently. Given that some 600 animals have been killed by dogs in Sussex in the last four years or so, the default position must be that dog owners put their dogs on leads when they are around livestock. They need to be educated about that, but if they do not comply, measures must be taken.

Again, I entirely agree. We need to educate, and we need to be able to enforce the requirement for dogs to be on leashes when livestock are in fields. When people do not abide by that requirement, there needs to be punishment to deter others from doing the same.

Overall, farming contributes more than £140 million to Sussex’s economy and employs 8,500 people permanently, as well as thousands of seasonal workers. Of course we want to preserve Sussex’s natural beauty, but its proximity to the tourism hubs in London and Brighton provides easy access for dog walkers as well as others who are enjoying our countryside. Farmers look after more than 62% of the Sussex countryside, and manage public footpaths that go through their land. It is vital for us to introduce measures to ensure that both livestock and dogs are safe. The end result of an attack can be the shooting of a dog if it is found in mid-attack, and we want to protect dogs in those circumstances. Owners have a responsibility to ensure that their dogs are kept safe, which is why this debate should cover dog-owners as well.

The hon. Gentleman kindly mentioned me. I should declare an interest, as an urban shepherd in Brighton and Hove.

Many dog owners are not aware of the damage that their dogs can do. They think that the dogs will not attack sheep. However, a dog does not have to attack a sheep physically to worry it. Chasing sheep can be enough to cause miscarriage or even death, because they are very likely to have heart attacks as well.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady. The difficulty is that, although most dog owners whom I speak to say, “My dog is perfect: he is a saint” —or “She is a beauty”—“who will do nothing to harm anyone”, the fact is that dogs are animals too. They have urges to play with other animals, and they often think that the sheep are enjoying being chased around. Their motivation is not necessarily malicious, although it may be sometimes. Dog owners need to understand the effect of letting dogs off leashes when there are livestock around.

Livestock worrying must be treated as a recordable crime. Dog owners must be given consistent information and act accordingly; farmers must report all instances, and the police must take them seriously. Livestock worrying is one of the greatest problems affecting farmers in Sussex. As we have heard, there are more than 130 cases a year, more than the number in Scotland.

At this time of year—spring in particular —when sheep are in-lamb, there is greater onus on dog owners to keep control of their dogs, because dogs chasing ewes across fields can lead to lambs being aborted.

I totally agree. There are already some protections, but they are too weak, particularly around this time of year.

Over the last couple of years in Sussex, we have experienced some particularly bad dog attacks, including the infamous incident in the constituency of the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), where 116 sheep were attacked, and another incident in 2015 where sheep were driven off Beachy Head by dogs. The region is, of course, heavily populated and that, combined with its grazing landscape, means that these conflicts tend to occur more regularly than elsewhere.

Since September 2013, there have been 497 recorded cases of livestock worrying, but that is only the pinnacle of the problem as many farmers do not report; they do not believe the police will follow up and do anything, and therefore we believe the true number of incidents is much higher.

The blight of livestock worrying has cost Sussex farmers £66,000; that is only the recorded financial loss, but the fines have added up to only £2,224. There seems to be a disparity between the punishment and the loss to our farms.

We are also acutely aware that the number of reported cases from dog owners themselves is very low. We might therefore require dog owners to self-report when their dogs do things wrong. I would like to know from the Minister what plans there are to support the police to take action against offenders and prosecute appropriately with repeat offenders, and what plans his Department has made to ensure that farmers can report attacks more easily and to improve signage and information on farms. Despite the tendency of the law to back the livestock keeper, the problem is continually getting worse and there are very few prosecutions. As we have heard, public education has a huge role to play, as does getting a number of successful prosecutions which can be publicised as a warning to less responsible dog owners.

My constituency lies in Scotland and faces the same problem as my hon. Friend’s. Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that this is a UK-wide problem, and that the effect on individual farmers is enormous and often missed in the statistics? These farmers take great care of their sheep and the financial loss is huge, but so is the loss to the structure of the flock.

I agree; I am raising this is as a Sussex issue because of the high number of incidents there and because I am a Sussex MP, but this is an issue across the country where we have flocks, particularly that roam near urban areas or where there are towns nearby. Will the Minister consider having an effective public education campaign, building on some of the campaigns that have already been co-ordinated, to make sure that dog owners in urban areas, as well as rural areas, understand that this is an important issue?

Some have called for the Minister to consider developing dog DNA information and DNA testing to help identify dogs. While that might be going a little too far, it might be interesting to know what forensic detail the Department is thinking about employing to track down those responsible. Will the Minister consider changing the law so that dog owners have the legal obligation to report livestock attacks?

Ultimately, it must be stressed that the No. 1 job of our farmers is to produce safe, sustainable and traceable food for our communities and country. They can do this only if they are able to farm safely and profitably, and livestock worrying is seriously affecting their ability to do that. For small farmers in particular, livestock worrying is devastating because of the huge impact it has on their productivity. It can set them back many months. This problem is entirely preventable. If there were simply enough awareness of the issue, if we were able legally to enforce a leashing requirement for dogs in fields with livestock, and if we were able to ensure that the police dealt effectively with the problem, we might be able to stamp it out and support our farming communities.

I should like to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on securing this debate. It is particularly encouraging to see him and a number of other hon. Members who represent urban seats showing a keen interest in rural issues. Members representing urban seats are always welcome to our debates that mainly affect rural areas.

The Government recognise that dog attacks on livestock cause considerable stress to the livestock owners, as well as causing serious injury to the animals themselves. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) pointed out, attacks on sheep during lambing can have a catastrophic impact even if there is no physical injury. This can severely affect the welfare of the sheep and the income of the farmer. As the hon. Gentleman said, this is essentially an issue of responsible dog ownership. There is no doubt that we are hearing more and more reports anecdotally that this is becoming a problem, with more and more dogs appearing to be out of control and more and more farmers suffering from the problem than in the past.

A couple of recent reports have looked at the problem in some detail. They are the 2018 “Livestock Worrying Police Working Group Final report” from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, and the 2017 report by the all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare, “Tackling livestock worrying and encouraging responsible dog ownership”. Those two reports have done much to highlight the scale of the problem and to identify some possible improvements that we could make.

The 2018 NPCC report showed that there were 1,705 incidents across the five participating forces, resulting in nearly 2,000 livestock deaths a year. Those figures are a matter of great concern and show the scale of the problem that we have. Overall there was an increase of incidents across the five forces over the period from 2013 to 2017. Over that same period, 92 dogs were shot as farmers attempted to protect their livestock. It is also worth noting that in 66% of cases, the dog owner or dog walker was not present. There is a real problem with the lack of responsibility being taken by dog owners, as well as problems being caused by stray dogs and by owners not being in control of the dogs in their care.

Among the recommendations in both the NPCC and APPG reports was that the definition of “livestock” in the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 should be amended to include more species that are now farmed, such as llamas and alpacas, or that we should possibly move away from such definitions and lists and instead have a general description of animals kept for farming. There is also criticism that the 1953 Act is restricted to incidents on “agricultural land” and that it should be broadened to include other areas. Recommendations are also made in relation to allowing police to take DNA samples to help to identify individual problem dogs. The hon. Gentleman raised that point. This would also mean having the power to have a DNA database. There are also recommendations relating to increasing the maximum penalty for offences under the Act.

We will of course look at the recommendations, but I suggest that the police look at using the powers in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to supplement their powers under the more dated 1953 Act when considering taking forward a prosecution, because it is more up to date and applies anywhere, not just on agricultural land.

The 1953 Act relates directly to dogs worrying or attacking livestock. While it was specifically drafted for such incidents, a lot has happened since those days in relation both to the livestock we farm and to dog control legislation. Since the 1953 Act, other legislation with broader powers has been passed. For example, the 1991 Act makes it an offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control in any place. The Act also contains a power for a police officer to enter premises and seize any dog suspected of being dangerously out of control. There appears to have been a long-held perception among enforcement agencies that attacks by dogs on other animals cannot be dealt with under the 1991 Act. Indeed, the APPG report considered that as a weakness of the 1991 Act, but the Government disagree with that analysis.

The 1991 Act can be and has been used in incidents where dogs attack other animals. The Act provides a definition of when a dog must be regarded as dangerously out of control. It refers to a dog being dangerously out of control when there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will attack someone. However, this definition is not exclusive, and the words of section 3 of the 1991 Act could include, for example, a case where a dog attacks another dog or another animal, and there is case law in this area. In 2008, a Court of Appeal judgment specifically pointed out that the definition of “dangerously out of control” in section 10 of the 1991 Act is not exclusive and made it clear that the ordinary meaning of the words in section 3 of the Act could be applied to any given circumstances. Specifically, the Court said:

“In any event the definitions section, section 10, is not exclusive. It does not read as a matter of construction, ‘For the purposes of this Act, a dog shall only be regarded as dangerously out of control...’ and then proceed to the definition. Therefore we feel ourselves entitled to go back to the straightforward words of section 3: ‘If a dog is dangerously out of control in a public place…’.”

We therefore believe that the 1991 Act can be used in cases of attacks on livestock.

However, a further criticism of the 1991 Act was that it only dealt with issues after they had happened. So, in 2014, the Government completed an overhaul of the antisocial behaviour powers. The review resulted in more measures and powers for police and local authorities to intervene before a dog becomes dangerously out of control. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 contains measures that allow police and local authorities to take action in low-level incidents of anti-social behaviour, including when they involve a dog. Incidents would include where a dog is causing a nuisance, but where no offence is committed under the 1991 Act. In such circumstances, police or local authorities can take action by issuing a community protection notice to the owner, or person in charge of the dog at the time, to control the dog and stop the nuisance behaviour. Failure to comply with a CPN can lead to a fine of £2,500. Many animal welfare organisations and dog keeping groups have campaigned for the introduction of such early intervention notices.

For more serious incidents of antisocial behaviour, such as using a dog to intimidate someone, there is the criminal behaviour order. A CBO would be used in cases where a court is satisfied that an individual has engaged in behaviour that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Also available under the 2014 Act is the ability for local authorities to make public spaces protection orders. PSPOs replaced dog control orders and allow local authorities to place restrictions on dogs in certain clearly defined areas. For example, a requirement might be that all dogs must be kept on a lead—a point the hon. Gentleman and others have raised.

Finally, the police also have the option of taking action under a much older Act, namely the Dogs Act 1871, which shows that this particular challenge is not new. That Act requires a lower level of proof—it is basically on a balance of probability—and under the Act a magistrates court can order anything reasonable to keep a dog under control, including that it be muzzled or kept on a lead in public places. The court can also order that a dog be destroyed.

A wide range of legislation and powers are in place to give both the police and local authorities the ability to act in this area. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there is a key challenge in identifying the dogs responsible for these attacks, particularly in the context that some two thirds of attacks happen when the owner is not present. The legislation obviously relies on our knowing who owns the dog and on our being able to take action against that person. To that end, it is important for all the agencies and the police to work together at local level to gather intelligence on who these irresponsible owners are, and there are some examples of that being done.

Police in the London Borough of Sutton, for example, have been working with other local interest groups to encourage responsible dog ownership. Secondly—the hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of raising awareness of this issue—the local environmental awareness on dogs, or LEAD, scheme seeks to provide advice to the public on dog issues, to improve dog safety and dog welfare, and to deal with antisocial and inconsiderate behaviour by individuals with dogs in a way that protects and reassures the public. The scheme is aimed at all dog owners in Sutton, whether in private or rented accommodation. The initiative has also been rolled out to other London boroughs, as well as to one or two other local forces. The police are taking action to raise awareness of these issues.

We want to see more of that sort of joined-up work, and I can report that similar examples are now being rolled out in the countryside specifically to address dog worrying. For instance, I am pleased to see that, on 22 June, SheepWatch UK will host a follow-up meeting on the three public strands—police, farming and dog owners—to try to maintain progress and to raise awareness of some of these issues.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of requiring owners to report attacks. A more fruitful way forward is to try to make sure that we take action against those owners who are absent and not taking their responsibilities seriously. I understand what he says, and I am willing to consider his suggestion. However, the problem is that owners who are culpable of having an out-of-control dog are unlikely to want to report it, and introducing a law requiring them to do so might not make such reporting more likely.

The point made in other reports about potentially allowing DNA samples to be taken where there is a persistent, repeated problem so that we can try to identify the dogs responsible might be a better approach.

The hon. Gentleman has made some important points, and we have had a number of important interventions from other hon. Members. This is a very serious issue, with large numbers of livestock deaths and large numbers of incidents. We believe the legal powers are there to address the issue, but he is right that we should take every opportunity to raise awareness of this challenge and to encourage more responsible pet ownership.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.