Every time Liam Gilligan visits the north country of 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 to such a degree that a body count was difficult to make.
Another Leitrim farmer, Kevin Comiskey, who took over as chairman of the IFA’s national sheep committee last month, said it was impossible for Gilligan to register the animals he had just lost. “With heads lost and ears ripped off, it was impossible to locate the tags,” he explained.
The count was eventually done through a process of elimination because it was easier to record the surviving animals from the herd of 65.
“I had the guards, and the neighbors came and we stayed there until 3 p.m. picking up sheep,” recalls Gilligan, who last checked the sheep on Christmas Eve. “To see the state of the heads and faces of the sheep was surreal. I have never seen a scene like this before.
Despite the gruesome sight, he says he was “lucky” in a way because the dogs’ owner 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 hadn’t arrived then, they probably would have finished off the sheep. To be honest, I never imagined that dogs could do such destruction.”
Another ewe has died since the attack and Gilligan fears others will lose their lambs.
“The vet said some of them might never be right after that.”
Under the Dog Control Act, dogs can be put down if they are found to be ‘worrying’ or ‘about to worry’ livestock and there is no other way to stop them.
Farmers also have the right to put down stray dogs found near an area where livestock have been injured or killed, if they “reasonably believe” the dog was involved and they have no way of seize the dog or determine ownership.
Prosecutions are rare, but former horse trainer Stephen Mahon of 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 failed to compensate a farmer whose sheep were killed by his dogs.
At Gort District Court, Judge Mary Larkin spared Mahon Jail after paying £6,500 compensation to John Moran, following a sheep murder in Caherpeak, Kilcolgan on June 3, 2018 involving a Rottweiler and a burrow.
The accused was sentenced to a total fine of €1,350.
Moran (67) had said in an earlier non-court hearing that over the years he had lost 68 sheep in nine separate sheep killings.
It is estimated that 4,000 sheep are killed or seriously injured by dogs each year, but the IFA estimates that around one in four animal owners bother to register their dogs.
The association estimated there were 800,000 dogs in the country and, with just 207,866 licenses issued in 2020, they say this stands in stark contrast to the responsibility farmers have to provide full traceability for seven million cattle. and three million breeding sheep.
Figures released by the Department of Rural and Community Development, which is responsible for dog control policy and legislation, showed that in 2000 158,200 individual dog licenses were issued – but it is unclear how many dogs were in the country then.
A department spokesperson said it was accepted that the impact of the Covid-19 and Level 5 lockdowns had affected the enforcement of all provisions of the law in 2020. Under the law, fines and on-the-spot prosecutions may be initiated for a variety of reasons such as license violations, unrestrained dogs, leash or muzzling violations or “livestock concerns”.
A breakdown of local authority enforcement figures shows that under Section 9 of the Act, which covers ‘sheep concerns’, there were 310 fines issued in 2020 compared to 539 in 2019 The number of prosecutions fell from 66 to 31 over this period while there were five convictions under Article 9 in 2020 compared to 23 in 2019.
As the lambing season is underway, two government ministers have recently launched an awareness campaign.
Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue and Rural and Community Development Minister Heather Humphreys expressed concern at the 241 incidents of “livestock concern” reported to local authorities in 2020.
Farmers in the Dublin mountains are afraid to go away at the weekend because people bring their dogs to the hills and allow them to run free
Kevin Comiskey described the launch of the awareness campaign as “an important first step”, but said it needs to be accompanied by better enforcement.
Outgoing IFA Sheep President Sean Dennehy said while farmers need to ensure each animal is individually tagged and traceable, most dogs are nowhere to be found.
Dennehy estimates 3.5 million lambs will be born to 2.6 million ewes before the end of April and says this is a worrying time given the risks posed by dogs whose ownership may be impossible to establish. He says every pet owner thinks their dog would never harm the sheep, but the most unlikely dogs are a threat.
“A small minority of dog owners disregard any rules and leave their pets off leash when out on the hills,” he said. “Farmers in the hills of Dublin are afraid to go away at the weekend because people bring their dogs to the hills and allow them to run free.”
He thinks serious hikers aren’t the problem, but said in the country’s highlands, some dog owners let pets off leash as soon as they’re about 200 yards from the parking lot. “Their only concern is that their pets could be run over by a car.”
The IFA requires a single national database for all dogs in the country, which identifies the person responsible for the dog. And he wants “more appropriate penalties” for those who violate microchipping obligations. There are currently four approved private databases, which register all chip information on an EU database, Europetnet.
Farmers also want tougher penalties for dog owners whose pets attack livestock and more resources to enforce the law; there are currently 50 full-time and 25 part-time dog sitters in the country.
Microchipping legislation is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture (all dogs must be microchipped by a veterinarian and registered in an authorized database before the age of 12 weeks), the Dog Control Act falls under of the Ministry of Rural and Community Development, while enforcement is the responsibility of local authorities who employ dog guards.
The €20 dog license, valid for one year, is sold by An Post.
A lifetime dog license costs €140 while a general dog license covering an indefinite number of dogs at one location costs €400 per year.
I could have 120 sheep and I would know them all individually. If one was missing for six months and I saw it in another field I would know right away.
Conall Calleary, the County Sligo veterinarian, is not surprised at the high proportion of unlicensed dogs, although licenses can be purchased online. He said that before Covid, the dog sitter used to go door to door to check licenses, especially in areas where livestock attacks had been reported. Now that restrictions have eased, he expects dog guards to be back on the field.
“A lot of sheep will abort later because of the stress of being hunted.”
Kevin Comiskey recalls that as a young farmer he lost three of his six sheep in one incident.
“It was heartbreaking. A farmer keeps his sheep 24/7,” he said. “I could have 120 sheep and I would know them all individually. If one was missing for six months and saw him in another field, I would know immediately.
He says sheep farmers are looking forward to lambing season, “and if your ewe had a lamb or two, that’s a great feeling. It brightens up your day.
‘No dogs allowed’
With only 82 dog owners prosecuted under all sections of the law in 2020 and only 198 dogs seized, the IFA demands action. He has pledged to continue his ‘No Dogs Allowed’ campaign launched last year on farmland across the country. “We sent out 3,000 placards last year and this campaign will continue until the government takes action to address this persistent problem,” said Sean Dennehy.
Calleary says one reason for the low number of lawsuits may be that when dogs are caught in the act, owners typically take responsibility and pay compensation without being summoned.
But in many cases the dogs left long before the damage was discovered “and unfortunately, although dog keepers may have suspicions, it is very difficult to prove which animal carried out an attack”.
Asked about the need for more dog sitters, a spokesperson for Heather Humphreys said such staffing was the responsibility of the chief executive of each local authority “and the department has no function in this respect”.
Charlie McConalogue said dog owners should remember that even the gentlest pet “can kill or maim sheep and lambs if allowed to roam”.
Dennehy said farmers were concerned that many people who paid high prices for dogs at the start of the pandemic while working from home would return to the office, leaving the dogs unsupervised and without exercise.
“People need to make sure their dogs don’t wander off their property.”