Paws for thought: dog walking and livestock worrying
12 February 2024
The countryside is a fantastic place to escape. It is the home of picturesque views, long relaxing walks and beautiful native wildlife. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to nobody that there is a web of intricate legal principles and rules at play that allow us to enjoy the countryside we know and love.
The relationship between the landowner and dog-walker has been an ever contentious one. The ongoing debate has been reignited over the introduction of a Defra-sponsored bill. The Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) Bill has been designed to introduce new powers for the police and harsher punishments for those guilty of the offence of livestock worrying.
The incident reported recently in Devon where 45 ewes and lamb were killed or had to be put down as a result of a savage attack by dogs demonstrates the severity of the problem. Such events are hugely traumatic for the animals and the family concerned and can have a costly economic impact on farmers who often have tight margins to cope with in the first place.
It is important that we protect our countryside and the livestock within it. Learning about the laws that give you access to the vast breadth of English countryside is the best way to protect yourself and your canine companions.
Legal access to the countryside
County or borough councils and unitary authorities maintain what is known as a Definitive Map and Statement, which is the legal record of public rights of way for their area. According to the Government, there are about 188,700 kilometres of footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways that make up our public rights of way network in England and Wales . There is no specific legal requirement to keep a dog on a lead while on a public path, rather a dog should be ‘under control’.
In addition to public rights of way, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (the Act) gives a public right of access to land known as ‘open access land’, as mapped by Natural England here. Open access land includes common land registered with local councils and some land around the King Charles III England Coast Path.
The Act allows any person to enter any open access land on foot so that they can enjoy open-air recreation as long as they do not damage any walls, fences, hedges, stiles or gates. There are also a number of restrictions that apply to open access land.
Landowners have the right to exclude people from entering areas of open access land for up to 28 days for management purposes. They may also ban dogs from their land in certain circumstances, such as for the lambing season or the protection of grouse. However, trained guide dogs and trained hearing dogs cannot be prevented from accessing open access land under any circumstance.
Restrictions are in place between the 1 March and the 31 July every year. Between these dates, if you intend to take a dog onto any open access land, they must be on a lead no more than two metres in length. A lead is also required when taking a dog onto land that is in the vicinity of livestock at all times of the year. In coastal margins dogs must be kept under ‘effective control’ at all times.
If you were to fail to comply with the above rules you would be trespassing on the landowner’s property and may face consequences.
Protection of livestock
The law currently gives police the power to seize and detain any dog caught in the act of worrying livestock. The current offences are attacking livestock, chasing livestock in a way that could cause injury or suffering to the livestock or, in the case of females, abortion, loss of or diminution in their offspring. It is also an offence to have a dog that is not on a lead or otherwise under close control in a field or enclosure in which there are sheep.
If a dog is caught doing any of the above, it may be seized and detained by a police officer until the owner has claimed it and paid all expenses incurred by reason of its detention.
The new bill, as currently drafted, will intensify the powers that the police have when responding to livestock worrying incidents. It aims to makes it easier for them to collect evidence, seize and detain dogs after any incident has taken place.
To responsible dog owners, this should not come as any cause for concern. However, if you find yourself worried about the dos and don’ts of the countryside, the Government has published guidance on how to responsibly visit the countryside, called the Countryside Code.
The Countryside Code – visitors
Full and summarised versions of the Countryside Code can be found on the government’s website here.
For dog specific guidance the Countryside Code advises:
“Keep your dog under effective control to make sure it stays away from wildlife, livestock, horses and other people unless invited. You should:
- always keep your dog on a lead or in sight
- be confident your dog will return on command
- make sure your dog does not stray from the path or area where you have right of access.
Always check local signs as there are situations when you must keep your dog on a lead for all or part of the year. Local areas may also ban dogs completely, except for assistance dogs. Signs will tell you about these local restrictions.
It is good practice wherever you are to keep your dog on a lead around livestock.”
The ramifications of not following this guidance can be much more severe than fines and legal offences. Farmers can shoot a dog that is attacking or chasing livestock and they may not have to compensate the dog’s owner.
The Countryside Code – landowners
When a dog is seen to be attacking or chasing livestock the landowner is advised to:
- ask the owner to recall or catch their dog
- chase the dog out of the area or scare it away
- catch the dog if it is safe to do so, check for an ID tag, return the dog to their owner and ask them to keep their dog under control.
If the landowner is unable to identify the dog or its owner, they should report the dog to the local authority.
The Countryside Code advises that landowners should only consider shooting the dog as a last resort. Any attack on livestock should be reported to the police when livestock are no longer in danger, even if the dog has not been shot.
The Government recognises the importance of access to the countryside. They believe that everybody should have the opportunity to access, use and enjoy England’s natural environment and outdoor spaces. Increasing amounts of research, such as that undertaken by the charity Mind, are proving that spending time in green space or bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing.
It is imperative that landowners and members of the public understand their rights and responsibilities, so that we can continue to enjoy the countryside and it is respected as a workplace for farmers. By understanding the guidance and having an idea of the relevant law we can keep all of our four-legged friends safe.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at February 2024.