NEARLY 40 sheep have died in a dog attack on a Dartmoor farm – the latest episode in a series of events dubbed the worst ever seen.
The incident took place in three adjoining fields belonging to Tom Havill of Lower Cator Farm near Widecombe-in-the-Moor, and Devon and Cornwall police are asking anyone with information to come forward.
Mr Havill, who also keeps sheep at Bellever, Widecombe and across the open moor arrived at the fields one morning earlier this month to a shocking scene of carnage.
‘I saw three sheep lying dead and many more injured or dying.’
He returned to his farmhouse several miles away to fetch his gun which he used to dispatch several of the most seriously injured.
The first person Mr Havill called was Karla McKechnie, the Protection Officer for the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society.
She said: ‘Tom was distracted. He said “There’s a dead sheep, oh no, there’s another one… and another,” as he kept on finding more. It was shocking for him. What do you do in that situation?’
A vet was called to inspect the rest of the flock and it was then decided the euthanaise yet more injured ewes. In total 35 of Mr Havill’s Welsh Mountain cross sheep died on February 2, with another two dying on consecutive days from what is believed to be stress-related causes.
Mr Havill keeps some 800 sheep across the moor and expects to lose about 20 animals per year from dog attacks or vehicle injuries. This attack differed in the type of injuries the sheep sustained.
He said: ‘Normally an animal would be bitten on its hind quarters as it runs away from a dog chasing it. But 33 out of the 35 who were attacked were bitten on their necks or front legs.
‘It looked like these dogs knew what to do, as if they had been trained to kill.
‘I think they herded then into a corner of the field then attacked them one by one as they tried to break away.
‘I arrived at 10.30am and the dead sheep were still warm so I think it happened at first light.’
Police have made door-to-door inquiries but there are no leads at the moment.
Regardless of the emotional cost there is a financial implication. Taking in the cost of the animals, vet’s fees and their disposal at a local crematorium, Mr Havill estimates he’s lost somewhere in the region of £4,500.
The nearby area is popular with dog walkers and Mr Havill has made the fields as secure as possible, so mystery surround how the dogs got in.
He’s had close encounters with dog owners who have been harassing animals and had stand-offs with them. ‘I’ve seen dogs having a go at animals and when I’ve spoken to the owners they haven’t apologized or disciplined the dog,’ he said.
‘It’s mostly a problem at the popular beauty spots like Haytor or the reservoirs where visitors don’t keep their dogs under control.’
Mr Havill doesn’t carry his gun on a daily basis, but said if he saw his animals being attacked and he had his gun to hand he wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
‘If there was no doubt about it being a genuine case of worrying I’d shoot the dog without hesitating,’ he said.
Karla McKechnie, the Protection Officer for the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society (DLPS), described the attack: ‘This is the worst case I’ve ever seen,’ she said
It’s her role to liaise between farmers and agencies such as the police and Dartmoor National Park, and where appropriate, with the dog owners themselves, which can prove awkward and potentially dangerous. Karla will gather evidence including vehicle registration numbers to pass on to the authorities.
She said: ‘Normally a case involves one or two animals, Tom’s is the worst I can remember.’
A total of 108 cases were reported last year and 78 in 2020 when the country was in lockdown for a third of the year, and the incidence of animal attacks is on the rise.
Karla said: ‘I’ve been the officer for 11 years and this by far the worst it’s been. So far in 2022 we’ve had 16 separate attacks reported, which is unheard of for this time of year. The days are short and the weather is bad so there would normally be fewer people on the moor with their dogs.’
One theory put forward is the high number of ‘lockdown puppies’ bought during the pandemic. Training classes were suspended or curtailed leading to high number of undisciplined dogs.
‘It’s possible you’re seeing the consequences now,’ Karla said. ‘My advice would be do not let your dog off the lead if it has not been properly trained. It’s not okay for your dog to worry about livestock.’
Unless an owner is caught on site it’s difficult to provide responsibility. Dog owners could have to pay compensation to the farmer and be given a Voluntary Control Order. If they re-offend owners could be taken to court.
Karla said: ‘There’s no need for any animal to be suffering. Anyone who sees an out of control dog in the area or comes across an animal which has been injured, call me day or night, seven days a week on 07873 587561.’
POLICE APPEAL FOR WITNESSES
PC Martin Beck, rural affairs officer, said: ‘Unfortunately, over recent weeks, we have had a number of reports where sheep have been chased and attacked or killed by dogs, which can be very upsetting for all those involved.
‘Livestock worrying is a criminal offense and action could be taken against owners and their dogs by the police and/or the landowner.
‘We would urge dog owners to be responsible for knowing where their dog is and manage its behaviour, stick closely to public rights of way and pick up dog mess in livestock grazing areas to prevent disease risk. If livestock are present – keep it on a lead or tight close control (should you be chased by cattle then release the lead).
“We know that most dog owners are responsible but nearly all livestock attacks and worrying is preventable.
‘If you see livestock worrying occurring, please report it by calling 999 if it is ongoing or otherwise use 101 or [email protected]’
If you witnessed the incident or have any information that could help the police with their inquiries, please email [email protected] or call 101, quoting crime reference CR/009862/22.