When pets attack: ‘I never dreamed dogs could do such destruction’

Farmers are calling for more action to control dogs after several grisly mauling incidents

Every time Liam Gilligan visits the land in north Leitrim where two pet dogs mauled 25 of his sheep to death, he replays the scene in his mind. It was 9.30am on St Stephen's Day when he arrived to discover a bloody mess of dead and dying animals, torn apart to such a degree that a body count was hard to carry out.

Kevin Comiskey, another Leitrim farmer, who last month took over as chairman of the IFA's national sheep committee, said it was impossible for Gilligan to record the animals he had just lost. "With heads gone and ears torn off it was impossible to locate the tags," he explained.

The count was ultimately done by a process of elimination as it was easier to record the animals who had survived from the flock of 65.

“I got the guards, and neighbours came and we were there until 3pm gathering up sheep,” recalled Gilligan, who had last checked the sheep on Christmas Eve. “To see the state of the sheep’s heads and faces was unreal. I never came across a scene like that before.”

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Despite the grisly sight, he says he was “lucky” in one way as the owner of the dogs took responsibility. The two dogs, believed to be Staffordshire bull terriers, were put down. They were still at the scene when the farmer arrived from his home a few miles away. “If I had not arrived when I did they probably would have finished off the sheep. To be honest I never dreamt dogs could do such destruction”.

Another ewe has died since the attack and Gilligan is worried that more might lose their lambs.

“The vet said some of them might never be right after that.”

Under the Control of Dogs Act dogs may be put down if they are found “worrying” or “about to worry” livestock and there is no other way of stopping them.

Farmers are also entitled to put down stray dogs found in the vicinity of a place where livestock were injured or killed, if they “reasonably believe” the dog was involved and if they have no way of seizing the dog or ascertaining ownership.

Prosecutions are rare but former horse trainer Stephen Mahon from Kilcolgan, Co Galway was recently banned from owning dogs in the future by a District Court judge who said he would have been jailed if he had not paid compensation to a farmer whose sheep were killed by his dogs.

Rottweiler

At Gort District Court, Judge Mary Larkin spared Mahon jail after he paid €6,500 in compensation to John Moran, following a sheep kill in Caherpeak, Kilcolgan on June 3rd, 2018 involving a Rottweiler and a terrier.

The accused was fined a total of €1,350 .

Moran (67) had told an earlier, unrelated court hearing that over the years he had lost 68 sheep in nine separate sheep kills.

An estimated 4,000 sheep are killed or seriously injured by dogs every year, but the IFA estimates only about one in four pet owners bother to license their dogs.

The association has estimated that there are 800,000 dogs in the country and, with only 207,866 licences issued in 2020, they say this is in sharp contrast to the onus on farmers to provide full traceability for seven million cattle and three million breeding sheep.

Figures released by the Department of Rural and Community Development, which has responsibility for dog control policy and legislation, showed that in 2000 there were 158,200 individual dog licences issued – but it is unknown how many dogs were in the country then.

A spokesperson for the department said it was accepted that the impact of Covid-19 and Level 5 lockdowns had affected the enforcement of all provisions of the Act in 2020. Under the Act, on-the-spot fines and prosecutions can be initiated for a range of reasons such as licensing offences, dogs not under control, leashing or muzzling offences or “livestock worrying”.

A breakdown of the figures relating to enforcement by local authorities show that under section 9 of the Act, which covers “sheep worrying”, there were 310 fines issued in 2020 compared to 539 in 2019. The number of prosecutions was down from 66 to 31 over that period while there were five convictions under section 9 in 2020 compared to 23 in 2019.

Awareness campaign

With the lambing season under way, two Government Ministers recently launched an awareness campaign.

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys expressed concern about the 241 incidents of "livestock worrying" reported to local authorities in 2020.

Farmers on the Dublin Mountains are afraid to go away at the weekend because people bring their dogs up on the hills and allow them to run loose

Kevin Comiskey described the launch of the awareness campaign as “an important first step” but said it must be matched by better enforcement.

Outgoing IFA sheep chairman Sean Dennehy said that while farmers must ensure every animal is individually tagged and traceable, most dogs are untraceable.

Dennehy estimates 3.5 million lambs will be born to 2.6 million ewes before the end of April and says it is a worrying time given the risks posed by dogs whose ownership may be impossible to establish. He says every pet owner believes their dog would never harm sheep but the most unlikely dogs are a threat.

“A small minority of dog owners do not adhere to any rules and they let their pets off the lead when they are up on the hills,” he said. “Farmers on the Dublin Mountains are afraid to go away at the weekend because people bring their dogs up on the hills and allow them to run loose.”

He believes serious hikers are not the problem, but said in uplands throughout the country, some dog owners let pets off the lead as soon as they are about 200 metres from the car park. “Their only worry is that their pets could be hit by a car.”

The IFA is calling for a single national database for all dogs in the country, which identifies the person responsible for the dog. And it wants “more appropriate sanctions” for those in breach of the microchipping obligations. There are currently four approved private databases, all of which register the chip information on an EU database, Europetnet.

Stronger sanctions

Farmers also want stronger sanctions for dog owners whose pets attack livestock and more resources to enforce the law; currently there are 50 full-time and 25 part-time dog wardens in the country.

Responsibility for microchipping legislation rests with the Department of Agriculture (all dogs must be microchipped by a vet and registered on an authorised database by the time they are 12 weeks), the Control of Dogs Act comes under the Department of Rural and Community Development, while enforcement is the responsibility of local authorities who employ dog wardens.

The €20 dog licence, valid for a year, is sold by An Post.

A licence for the dog’s lifetime costs €140 while a general dog licence covering an unspecified number of dogs at one location costs €400 a year.

I could have 120 ewes and I would know them all individually. If one was missing for six months and I saw it in another field I would know it immediately

Conall Calleary, the county veterinary officer for Sligo, is not surprised at the high proportion of unlicensed dogs, even though licences can be bought online. He said pre-Covid the dog warden used to go door-to-door checking on licences, especially in areas where there were reports of attacks on livestock. Now that restrictions have eased, he expects dog wardens will be back on the ground.

“Many sheep will later abort their lambs from the stress of being chased.”

Kevin Comiskey remembers as a young farmer losing three of his six sheep in one incident.

“It was heart-wrenching. A farmer looks after his sheep 24/7,” he said. “I could have 120 ewes and I would know them all individually. If one was missing for six months and I saw it in another field I would know it immediately.”

He says sheep farmers look forward to lambing season, “and if your ewe has had a lamb or two it is a great feeling. It brightens your day.”

‘No Dogs Allowed’

With just 82 dog owners prosecuted under all sections of the Act in 2020 and only 198 dogs seized, the IFA is demanding action. It has pledged to continue its “No Dogs Allowed” campaign initiated last year on farmland throughout the country. “We sent out 3,000 signs last year and that campaign will continue until action is taken by Government to address this persistent problem,” said Sean Dennehy.

Calleary says one reason for the low number of prosecutions may be that when dogs are caught in the act, owners usually take responsibility and pay compensation without being summonsed.

But in many cases, dogs are long gone before the damage is discovered “and unfortunately while dog wardens may have suspicions, it is very hard to prove what animal carried out an attack”.

Asked about the need for more dog wardens, a spokesperson for Heather Humphreys said such staffing was a matter for the chief executive of each local authority “and the department has no function in this regard”.

Charlie McConalogue said dog owners should remember that even the most gentle family pet “can kill or maim sheep and lambs if allowed to roam”.

Dennehy said farmers are concerned that many people who paid hefty prices for dogs at the start of the pandemic when they were working from home were returning to offices, leaving dogs unattended and unexercised.

“People have to make sure their dogs don’t stray from their property.”