It's a dog's life

By Colin Hogarth

Dogs love the countryside. But however docile your pet, all have a natural instinct to chase other creatures, whether they be rabbits, sheep or ground nesting birds, like grouse. Man's best friend may be pottering along quite happily beside his or her owner, but a sudden movement in the bracken or the scent of a grazing animal may be all it takes to trigger this impulse. However obedient, when a dog is in the throws of a chase, the creature's single-minded determination means it may be very difficult to call him off.

Each year thousands of sheep are killed or injured by dogs and the behaviour of unruly mutts can have an adverse affect on a farmer or landowner's welcome for walkers.

Where a walk passes through sheep grazing land, it's always best to keep your dog on the lead. If you don't, it's worth bearing in mind that the law allows farmers and landowners to shoot dogs that are worrying livestock, or sue the owner for any damage.

There are various pieces of legislation that every dog owner venturing into the countryside needs to be aware of. For starters, the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 is designed to punish the owner of any dog found worrying livestock on agricultural land. The term 'livestock' covers sheep, cattle and poultry, among others, while 'agricultural land' includes grazing land, such as hillsides and moorlands where sheep are to be found.

For this piece of legislation to be used, the dog must be found attacking or chasing livestock or at large, that is not on a lead or under close control, in a field or enclosure containing livestock. An offence is punishable by a fine on the owner or keeper of the dog of up to £1,000.

The Animals Act 1971 can also be used in cases where a dog is caught worrying livestock. Under Section 3 of the Act, anyone who is the keeper of a dog that is caught damaging by killing or injuring livestock is liable for the damage. This means the farmer can sue the dog owner for compensation. Liability under this Act is strict so the livestock owner does not have to prove that the dog owner has been negligent, just that there has been damage.

In certain circumstances, a farmer or landowner has the right to shoot a dog found attacking or worrying his or her livestock. Section 9 of the same Act sets out the defences available to a farmer or landowner who kills or injures a dog.

It states that a "a person killing or causing injury to a dog shall be deemed... to act for the protection of any livestock if, and only if, either the dog is worrying or about to worry the livestock and there are no other reasonable means of ending or preventing the worrying; or the dog has been worrying livestock, has not left the vicinity and is not under the control of any person and there are no practicable means of ascertaining to whom it belongs."

The killing or injury of a dog by a farmer or landowner must be reported to the police within 48 hours.

Section 9 of the Act imposes responsibility on the farmer or landowner seeking to protect his or her livestock. A number of decisions need to be made to ensure full compliance with the Act and, in the heat of the moment it is quite possible that the farmer or landowner may fail to provide himself with an adequate defence. If in doubt, contact a solicitor.

On the other side of the coin, working dogs who cause injury to the visiting public, or, for that matter a walker's dog that attacks another person, may fall foul of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. This Act was introduced following a number of attacks on children by so-called "fighting" dogs.

The Act specifies several breeds including pit bull terriers, which could not be taken into a public place without having a muzzle fitted and kept on a lead. Of importance to farmers with working dogs, however, is Section 3(1) of the Act, which states that it is an offence committed by the owner or person in charge if any dog becomes dangerously out of control in a public place.

A dog is dangerously out of control if there is "reasonable apprehension that it will injure any person, whether or not it actually does so". A public place includes a place where the public are authorised to have access such as a public footpath. The offence is one of strict liability so the intention of the dog owner does not need to be proved. Nor is the dog's previously history of behaviour relevant.

The penalties under Section 3 are harsh. If the dog causes harm to someone, the owner or person in charge could be imprisoned for up to two years and fined at the court's discretion.

For a lesser offence such as causing apprehension, the maximum fine is £5,000 or six months imprisonment. Even more serious for the owner is the requirement under the Act that any dog found causing injury under Section 3 must be destroyed.

In cases where the dog simply causes apprehension and not injury the court has the last word on whether the dog should be destroyed or not.

That provision has, however, been relaxed by the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997 which allows a dog to escape destruction where the court is satisfied that the dog would not constitute a danger to public safety.