There have been numerous stories in the press recently of sheep worrying up and down the country. This issue has attracted national attention, with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare reporting on this issue last year. They indicated that across a period of 4 years, in 5 counties around the U.K., there were around 1,600 reported incidents of livestock worrying that resulted in around 3,400 livestock being killed or injured. Sadly, these stories are becoming more common, and according to NFU Mutual, attacks on livestock cost the farming industry an estimated £1.6 million in 2017. With those statistics in mind, it is understandable that some farmers defend their livestock with firearms: but what are the potential criminal consequences of doing so?

Causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal

A key piece of law in this area is the Animal Welfare Act 2006, under which it is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to a protected animal (which includes dogs). Causing an animal unnecessary suffering can result in a maximum 6 month prison sentence and/or unlimited fines. It can also result in a farmer being made subject to an order banning them from keeping animals, or being involved in the keeping of animals.

Such a banning order can be as broad or as narrow as the Court decides to set it, and for those farmers whose livelihood depends on their livestock, such a banning order could be ruinous.

The Animal Welfare Act sets out the considerations to be taken into account when deciding if the suffering is "unnecessary": whether the suffering could have been avoided or reduced; whether the act of causing the suffering was to protect a person, property or other animal; whether the suffering was proportionate; and whether the conduct concerned was in all circumstances that of a reasonable competent and humane person.

To illustrate the point, shooting a dog simply frolicking in the field is unlikely to be defensible, but shooting a dog threatening livestock after the owner has ignored requests to control the animal may indeed be deemed reasonable. Of course, this position becomes less clear if the dog is not killed with a single shot as suffering should be minimised as far as possible.

Criminal damage

In addition, shooting a dog worrying sheep may also make a farmer liable to a charge of criminal damage, as a dog is property.

A defence to this charge would require a farmer to show that he believed his livestock were in immediate need of protection and that the means adopted to protect them were reasonable. It is likely that a farmer will need to try and engage with the dog's owner (if present) before taking any action themselves.

Conclusion

It perhaps goes without saying that, if sheep worrying is taking place, it is advisable to enlist the support of the dog's owner and encourage them to control their animal.

Of course, that might not be possible: perhaps the owner refuses to help, is unable to help, or simply absent.

It is these circumstances where farmers who are prepared for this potentially stressful situation will be in a better position to deal with this and any ensuing criminal proceedings. Perhaps a video camera should be within reach of the firearm to enable video evidence to be taken. When possible it would be preferable to ensure that there is another person to act as a witness before deciding to use a firearm.

Of course, taking video evidence and securing a witness may not be possible bearing in mind how quickly dog attacks can take place, but in the grander scheme of things a short delay in dealing with the threat posed by the dog whilst taking a little time to protect one's own position may prevent greater worries arising down the road at Court.