Lambing season is coming up, and being in Scotland, I though I’d make a post on the most important things to keep in mind as a dog owner. Sheep worrying is a really big problem, and is detrimental to farmer’s livelihood. Even if your dog does not catch a sheep, the mere chase can be so stressful to the animal that it can cause ewes to miscarry their lambs, or even die from the fear. Even if dogs are since long domesticated, and their morphological features are distant to those of the wolf, don’t let their fluffy appearance and big eyes fool you. – They are still predators. This must always be kept in mind. No matter how good your dog usually is, a different situation, movement, or a wounded animal could trigger your dog’s prey drive.
In Scotland, sheep are pretty much everywhere. In some places, you will see a clearly enclosed field, but often they are free to roam the hills, making them more difficult to avoid. First of all, pay attention the environment when you are out walking. If you have had to climb a fence or go through a gate, you will likely encounter livestock. Many places have small signs or notes by the gates as well that state the dates of both lambing (spring and summer) and tupping (autumn and winter) season. These signs will also often state that all dogs must be kept on leash or under close control. There is some ambiguity to what the latter implies. So this post will cover my best advice and take on it. What is clear however, is that farmers have the right to shoot any dog that worries sheep, and the dog owner can be charged.
1. If you see sheep, leash your dog. To me, this rule is non-negotiable. Always walk your dog on a securely fitted martingale collar or slip leash. If your dog gets excited seeing the sheep, or for some other reason, this prevents them slipping their collar.
2. Sometimes a herd of sheep will be standing on the path you are walking. Depending on how the wind is blowing, they might not have heard or smelt you. In order to prevent you from startling them, which can cause them to panic (stressful for the sheep and tempting for your dog!), speak out loud to yourself to alert them of your arrival.
3. If the sheep are spread out on different sides of the path, the smaller groups of sheep will want to join the larger group if they feel threatened. If the sheep seem unsettled and you keep approaching at a steady pace they will most likely freeze, and then dart across the path just in front of you (problematic because of the reason mentioned above). So just hold back for a second and stand still while you allow the sheep to regroup.
4. If you find a wounded or trapped sheep, do not approach with your dog. Even if your dog is usually a real softie towards other animals, the sheep’s vulnerable vibe might trigger something unexpected in your dog. Additionally, approaching the animal with your dog might cause it to get even more stressed, which will worsen its condition and decrease its chances of survival. Take note of the sheep’s location, and let the closest farmer know. Sometimes there will be a sign with a contact telephone number on the gates or fences.
5. Improve your dog’s off leash obedience. Even when there are no sheep in sight, they often pop up unexpectedly around dips and bends. Sheep often get out of enclosures and get away from the group, and can appear in places they technically aren't supposed to be. Your dog will probably notice the sheep before you, so keep a close eye on your dog and watch for things like scenting and scanning. If you are going to have your dog off leash at all in the hills, it needs to have absolute bombproof obedience so that you can leash it when a sheep appears. If your dog is not reliable off leash, always keep it on a long line. Get in touch with a dog trainer who can help you train your dog. Before even thinking of letting your dog off leash in the country where there may be livestock, proof your dog’s obedience around other distractions like busy city parks, other dogs, people playing football, or squirrels. Train in a gradual and safe way and always keep your dog on a long line before it reaches a certain level of reliability.
Happy walking and respect the sheep!