Our open upland and uncultivated landscapes are maintained by grazing animals, but the survival of traditional hill farms is increasingly precarious. One of the tragedies which farmers face is that of sheep worrying by dogs: sheep and lambs are killed and injured and ewes abort because of uncontrolled dogs. This is a nationwide problem though few records are kept.
The Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society (DLPS) employs a Livestock Protection Officer, Karla McKechnie, who is on call round the clock working for the welfare of sheep, cattle and ponies on the moor. She records that last year there were at least 70 sheep attacks by dogs on Dartmoor, but only a fraction of the dogs were caught and owners cautioned. Usually the dogs run off and cannot be traced.
It is a losing battle, despite the welcome cooperation of the Tavistock police. A solution must be found or some farmers may give up grazing the commons. This will affect their livelihood and the hillfarming community and also have an impact on the landscape and our access there, the biodiversity and archaeology of the uplands.
The DLPS has come up with a brilliant idea.
In April 2016 a new law takes effect which will require everyone, with a few exceptions, to have their dog microchipped by the age of eight months.
It would be a simple step, at the same time as a dog is microchipped, to make it compulsory that a DNA sample is taken and recorded on a register. This would mean that if a dog later attacks livestock and then runs off, the DNA which is left on the victim can be matched to that on the register, the dog identified and the owner fined or charged as appropriate. The effect will be that dog owners are discouraged from allowing their dogs to cause injury because they will know that they can be traced.
Of course it would apply equally to injuries to other stock and to humans. There have been many terrible incidents of children being mauled by dogs. DNA registration would lead to owners taking more care and thus better dog behaviour.
The DLPS is launching its campaign to Catch the Canine Culprit, promoting the idea of compulsory DNA registration. It needs to persuade ministers to include this in the regulations for microchipping, which have recently been adopted by government (The Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015). It is seeking support from kindred organisations, such as the Dartmoor Commoners Council, the RSPCA and the National Sheep Association. The Dartmoor Preservation Association has already agreed to back the campaign and there has been coverage in the Farmers’ Guardian and Western Morning News.
The biotech company Streetkleen has the technology to produce the database of DNA records. Once the registers are in place, to be held by the local authorities, a swab can be taken from the bitten area of an attacked sheep and the DNA matched with that on the register.
With the forthcoming election, the DLPS will invite parliamentary candidates for Dartmoor constituencies to support the pledge for a new law. But this campaign is relevant far beyond Dartmoor, so let’s hope that other national parks, welfare groups and farming bodies recognise its merit—for farmers, animals welfare and public access, and that they agree to sign up to compulsory DNA registration for dogs.