“Last year I had to deal with a lady who had her dog off a lead,” said National Trust ranger Chris Millner. “It was chasing sheep around, and grabbed one by the throat, and there was blood everywhere. It was horrible. She was really upset. She’d come out with her dog for a nice day in the countryside, and then that happened.”
After a long winter, dogs enjoy the chance to go out for a run on the moors around Sheffield. On Burbage, where there’s been no livestock over recent months, those dogs are often not attached to their owners. Last weekend, on a brief tour around the Eastern Peak District moors managed by the National Trust, not one of the dogs spotted by the ranger team from their Land Rover were on leads. None at all.
This is not surprising, since surveys of dog owners show by a very large margin that the most important reason for taking a dog for a walk in the countryside is to let it off its leash.
From March 1 to July 31, however, notices go up on stiles and gates asking for owners to control their dogs on short leads.
“We think dog owners will take responsibility,” said Ted Talbot, National Trust countryside manager for the Peak District. “We want people to come to the countryside and have a nice experience, and not end up having to talk to a police officer and a really upset farmer over a dead sheep.”
There are over 700 dog attacks on livestock annually in the UK, said Chris Millner, with at least 10 reported attacks a year on the Peak District moors managed by the National Trust. The concern is that there have already been five dog attacks in the first two weeks of March, said Ted Talbot, so the trust is keen to remind dog owners of their responsibilities: it is illegal for a dog not to be in ‘close control’ near livestock and owners can be fined.
“The ultimate sanction is that the farmer can shoot your dog, which is an absolute disaster for everybody, as farmers are usually dog owners too. But it does occur.”
The rangers prefer the friendly option of explaining the issues to dog owners, said Chris Millner. “Last weekend over 90 per cent of owners we spoke to were happy to comply with what we were asking,” he said.
In March, ewes are pregnant and are either unable to run away from a dog overtaken by its wolfish instincts, as Ted puts it, or self-abort their lambs thanks to their flight instincts.
In addition to livestock, the moors between March and July are also home to ground nesting birds such as ring ouzel, curlew or lapwing, many of which are becoming rarer in the Peak District. Roaming dogs frighten birds off their nests, the eggs quickly cool and don’t hatch, causing hundreds of ‘nest failures’ every year.
“And there are adders that bite dogs,” warned ranger Liz Fisher. Such bites can cause a lot of pain and expense, and even kill smaller dogs, said Ted.
“We’d like people to have an awareness of what’s in the countryside,” he said. “We’d say inform yourself, and be prepared when you go out.” Some woodlands and forestry land are safe for walking dogs without leads, even in spring and summer, he added, but it’s worth looking up your destination to check.
Public education and friendly chats with unleashed dog owners are all part of the persuade rather than prosecute strategy. Another experimental option proposed by some moorland sheep farmers is to place a dog in a pen with a handful of burly rams. The dog will back off and conclude a sheep is not a prey animal, said Ted. Anyone interested in enrolling their dog in a ‘sheep aversion therapy’ programme can contact the trust which hopes to arrange such sessions in the near future.
In the meantime, said the rangers, the simplest advice is keep your dog on a short lead on the moors if you want to enjoy your day out.
Chris said he’d seen some recent pictures following a dog attack: two lambs which effectively had their faces bitten off.
“You really don’t want to take your kids out into the countryside and witness something like that,” said Liz.