Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Written evidence submitted by The National Farmers Union (NFU)

The NFU represents more than 55,000 farming members in England and Wales. In addition we have some 40,000 countryside members with an interest in farming and the country. The NFU welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the EFRA Committee inquiry on Dog Control and Welfare

Introductory Comments

1. The issue of dog control around livestock is a particular concern for farmers. Thousands of sheep and cattle are injured every year by dogs, causing distress to farmers and adversely impacting on farm businesses, not to mention stress to the dog owners and potential financial and criminal sanctions. If a dog worries livestock, the owner or person responsible could be guilty of an offence under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 (DPLA 1953), and may be sued for compensation by the farmer under the Animals Act 1971 (AA 1971). Farmers are also legally entitled to shoot dogs that attack their animals under that legislation—although this rarely happens. The NFU Mutual estimates that livestock worrying costs the UK farming industry more than £1m per year, and a recent investigation by the Farmers Guardian found that there were nearly 700 reported cases of sheep worrying by dogs in 2011. We believe that there are many more instances each year that go unreported.

2. However, farmers are often also dog owners, and in many instances these will include working dogs which play an important part in the running of a farm business. Furthermore, we acknowledge that a majority of dog owners manage their pets responsibly, and enjoyment of the open spaces which the countryside affords them and their pets is something to be valued and which farmers should be proud to share. It is therefore essential that the law governing dog ownership balances the need to protect the safety and well-being of people and other animals, with the avoidance of over-burdening owners with unnecessary and excessive regulation.

3. With this in mind, we are not persuaded of the need for a wide-ranging overhaul of the law in relation to dog control, although we do believe the law relating to dogs and livestock needs to be significantly strengthened. We also advocate greater communication with the public about the potential risks inherent in dog ownership, particularly when dogs come into contact with livestock, and are keen to encourage more effective enforcement against owners of dangerous dogs.

Response to Specific Questions (where relevant)

Is there a need for a more fundamental overhaul of dog legislation, and its enforcement, including that relating to dog attacks on people, livestock and pets?

4. The NFU regularly hears reports from its members about attacks on livestock by dogs, and our experience suggests that the problem is increasing. Exact data is not easy to come by as it is clear that many attacks go unreported. We believe more should be done to tackle this problem, both by encouraging dog owners to do more to keep their dogs under control, and by ensuring greater sanctions, controls and restrictions are used on those whose dogs cause problems with livestock.

5. Dog owners are required to be kept under close control on rights of way and access land. Dogs straying from the defined paths of rights of way may mean their owners are liable for trespass. In statute, DPLA 1953 makes it an offence for a dog to attack or worry livestock, or to be at large in a field or enclosure in which there are sheep. Also, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) a dog must be kept on a short lead at all times in the vicinity of livestock, as well as at all times between 1 March and 31 July, in order to minimise disturbance to ground nesting birds.

6. Nevertheless, despite these requirements, livestock continue to be worried, injured and killed by dogs. The increase in public access to large areas of the countryside, in particular under CROW, appears also to have led to an increase in harmful encounters between dogs and livestock. Dog owners appear more liable to see the countryside as a large exercise area for their pets, and often this means that, while owners may have their dogs on leads for some of a walk, they let their dogs off the lead when they erroneously see no potential dangers or risks. Problems are also caused by aggressive breeds of dogs which are not kept under suitable restraint by their owners, sometimes escaping onto neighbouring farmland causing damage and death to livestock.

7. The penalties under DPLA 1953 for an owner whose dog worries livestock are woefully inadequate, remaining at a £10 fine on summary conviction, and a maximum of £50 for repeat offenders. It is clear that, if DPLA 1953 is to act as an effective deterrent, these fines must be increased significantly. There should also be consideration as to whether an offence under DPLA 1953 should allow the court to order control measures or destruction in some instances.

8. Elsewhere, we are concerned that the definition of livestock under section 3 of DPLA 1953 is out of date. It should be amended to include more exotic breeds which we know have been subjected to dog attacks, such as alpacas and other cameloids. We also have concerns with section 1(4) of DPLA 1953, which absolves absent owners from liability, and we know of a specific case where an absent owner’s dogs have repeatedly worried livestock, but no action has been taken by the police. This should be amended to ensure absent owners are liable for the behaviour of their animals. T

9. Civil remedies are available to livestock owners under the AA 1971, but this often involves costly and time-consuming litigation. We are also concerned that law enforcement agencies do not seem to take livestock worrying or killing seriously in all cases, and are often unwilling or unable to assist farmers in pursuing actions when an offence has been committed. We do believe that livestock worrying needs to be taken more seriously by the police, and that they should be willing to take action against irresponsible owners, particularly repeat offenders, when problems occur.

10. We acknowledge that a key element of tackling the issue is prevention, and we believe effort needs to be made to make the public aware of the potential hazard dogs pose to livestock. The NFU welcomed the recent re-launch of the Countryside Code by Natural England, which includes advice on responsible dog control, and hopes that this will have a positive impact on reducing instances of livestock worrying and attack by dogs. We also encourage our members to ensure signage is available and visible to walkers advising dogs to be kept on leads where livestock are present, and regularly remind the public through the media to be aware of livestock when walking dogs in the countryside.

11. We believe that the current law needs to be effective in dealing with the owners of dangerous and aggressive dogs. While this is a serious concern in terms of human welfare, and is often more a problem in urban and built-up areas, there is clearly a benefit from enforcing dangerous dog legislation as a deterrent to owners allowing out-of-control dogs to worry and kill livestock. The NFU feel other organisations are better placed to apply their expertise on how best to tackle ownership of dangerous dogs, and to judge the extent to which current legislation is fit for purpose, but in general we would support measures that discourage: the ownership of breeds known to be aggressive; the breeding and rearing of any dogs with the intention of nurturing and encouraging violent behaviour; and irresponsible ownership where dogs are not able to be controlled effectively or wilfully encouraged to display aggression.

12. We would note that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (DDA) is primarily aimed at protecting people rather than animals. In the event the government takes steps to amend the DDA or to replace it, we would welcome detailed discussion of the merits of introducing measures to protect livestock as well as people. In the meantime, we believe measures to increase penalties under DPLA 1953, both in relation to first time and repeat offenders, are necessary.

Will compulsory microchipping of puppies improve dog welfare and help prevent dog attacks at an affordable cost to dog owners?

13. The NFU believes that microchipping offers a number of benefits to owners, and that responsible owners may well consider microchipping their dogs as a matter of course. However, we do not believe that microchipping should be compulsory. The benefits of microchipping accrue primarily to the owner, as a mechanism to ensure identity and return of lost or stolen dogs. The benefits of microchipping to third-parties, for instance as an effective control on dangerous dogs, are far less obvious. Dogs are already required to have identification tags or collars, so in most instances owners who have potentially broken the law are identifiable. Irresponsible owners are as likely to have failed to use a compulsory microchip as a tag or collar– in fact more so if it is more expensive. The main way in which microchips are superior to tags or collars is that they are harder to remove—ie by a thief in the instance that they have been stolen or accidentally by a dog that has become lost. The benefit to the owner of microchipping in such cases is clear—the benefit to the wider public is not.

14. Therefore, the decision whether or not a dog be microchipped should remain with the owner. It remains the case that many of our members will microchip their dogs as a reflection of the personal and financial value of both working and pet animals, but we do not believe they should be compelled to do so.

Should the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 be extended to include offences committed on private property?

15. As far as farmers and farm businesses are concerned, we do not believe such a measure would be of any benefit. In tackling the specific problems of dogs worrying or killing livestock, this measure is unlikely to tackle the current problem of dogs on private land without permission, an area already covered by the law.

16. We do acknowledge that there are instances where dogs on private property with permission (normally dogs on their owner’s property) can cause harm to visitors, postmen being an obvious example, and that such instances justify consideration of an extension of the law. However, as farms are often individual premises, away from other dwellings and sometimes quite isolated, farmers can rely on pets or working dogs to warn of potential intruders. Furthermore, dogs are, understandably, often protective of their owners and can attack hostile impostors if they perceive them to be posing a physical threat. We would be very concerned that, in the case of a farm dog repelling an intruder (for instance a burglar), the farmer could be open to prosecution under the law. It is vital that the important extra level of security that dogs provide on farms is not undermined, particularly when rates of rural crime continue to rise. We are also concerned that members of the public or visitors seeing working dogs out of doors and off-lead, a more common occurrence on farms than in many other private premises, may be concerned that those dogs are dangerous, and could report farmers to the police when no offence has been committed and no danger exists, wasting both police and the farmer’s time.

17. We would therefore be reluctant to advocate a change in the law. However, should there be a strong case to extend the current law to cover dogs on their owner’s private property, safeguards must be put in to ensure that innocent owners and dogs that pose no threat to either the public or legitimate visitors are protected.

July 2012

Prepared 14th February 2013