“Snow’s coming soon,” the wife of a farm worker warned me last week. She rolled her eyes. “It’s lambing time. It was bound to happen.”

Lambing season is gruelling enough but, as she suggested, it’s almost inevitable that the elements will do their bit to add to the misery – for the animals as well as farmers – of midnight shifts in the perishing cold.

There’s another inevitability about lambing season too. As the days lengthen and trees begin to bud, stories about dogs chasing pregnant ewes proliferate. What should be one of the most uplifting times of the agricultural year can turn into one of the most distressing.

Earlier this week, an Arran farmer was cleared of endangering a dog owner’s life when he shot his pet at point blank range in April, 2019. The husky had run ahead into a field of ewes and lambs, but although its owner had got it back on the lead, as the farmer approached he saw it was trying to slip its collar. The sheep were huddled together in alarm.

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Stepping between the owner and the dog, he fired. This was the fourth incident of sheep worrying he had experienced in six months, despite warning signs for dog walkers all around the farm.

Where I live, in the Borders, there are similar signs, asking people to keep dogs on the lead when near livestock. To people’s annoyance, some of these have been removed, as if they’re an affront to a dog owner’s human rights.

For those who wouldn’t dream of letting their mutts run amok, the village Facebook page has occasional posts about sheep or cattle found wandering the paths, hills or woods, thereby alerting them to the chance of unexpected encounters and the need to keep pets on the leash.

Most don’t need reminding. If you live in the country, you know the rules: keep dogs on a lead anywhere there are, or might be, livestock. Even if you can’t see them, a dog will pick up their scent and be off like a firework. Those who prefer their pets to run free simply seek out places with no risk of bothering sheep, cattle or horses. That way they can all enjoy their walk.

Springtime is the most hazardous of all, since pregnant sheep are especially vulnerable when panicked. One of the worst-ever cases in the UK was on a farm near Chichester where, in 2016, a dog chased a flock, leading to 116 dead ewes and lambs. The culprit was never found. It cost the farmer £17,000, but it was the emotional impact rather than the financial hit that was most enduring.

HeraldScotland: In 2016 a dog chased a flock leading to 116 dead ewes and lambs – it cost the farmer £17k as well as severe emotional impactIn 2016 a dog chased a flock leading to 116 dead ewes and lambs – it cost the farmer £17k as well as severe emotional impact (Image: PA)

As any farmer will tell you, sheep are notorious for finding ways to die. Once they are frightened they can follow each other off a cliff, or get themselves into a corner where they pile on top of each other and are crushed to death. If a pregnant ewe survives the terror and exhaustion of being chased, it can miscarry. Since dog lovers presumably have a fellow feeling for all sorts of creatures, it is incomprehensible why some can be so heedless of the suffering their pet is capable of causing.

It is said that the problem of worrying has worsened considerably since Covid lockdowns, when huge numbers of people bought breeds they did not know how to control. That may be true, but dogs have been worrying sheep and cattle since feudal times, so it’s certainly nothing new. What is not in doubt, however, is that farmers are now more alert to the proliferation of dogs and the danger they pose.

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What can be done about it? The Countryside Code asks visitors to keep their dogs “under control and in sight”. Failure to do so could result in a fine of £1000, even if the dog doesn’t actually touch livestock, since the stress of being harried causes damage enough. Yet despite how frequently it happens, have you ever heard of anyone being fined?

Watching dogs, as I often do, careering through fields and woods at speed, knocking strangers sideways when they leap onto them or get between their feet, I can’t help wondering if dog ownership should be treated with greater seriousness.

Owning an animal capable of doing great harm, even if – or indeed because – it is only acting on instinct confers a heavy responsibility on the owner. All dogs, no matter their size or breed, have an inbuilt hunting drive and will give chase when they see what they think of as prey.

That can equally be a sheep, a fox, or a hiker or a bicyclist. When in a group they can also, as seen in a recent appalling case of a professional dog walker mauled to death, turn from cuddly fireside companions into something resembling a pack of wolves.

As the saying goes, there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. So with that in mind, perhaps it’s time to revive the idea of a paid-for dog licence. Already I can hear howls, and not from the dogs.

Yet wouldn’t it be to their benefit as well as that of the wider environment? It should come with the obligation to undergo an instruction course, so that the basics of animal care and training can be established: nutrition, exercise, obedience, grooming, health checks, and how to ensure socially acceptable behaviour in the home and beyond.

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Subjects covered would include advice on how to behave around farmland and in the countryside as well as in built-up areas, with illustrations of what can happen when a dog is not kept under control. If farmers were invited to talk about the hazard they pose to livestock – along with the possibility that the offending animal might be shot – there would be a better understanding of what one fundamentally wild creature can do to another. This would lead, one hopes, to fewer cases of worrying.

But with farmers’ patience running low, “beware of the dog” should perhaps now be flipped to read “dogs beware”. In an interview a couple of years ago, the farmer who lost 116 of his flock did not mince his words: “We’ve just started lambing so I take my gun with me. I can guarantee you, within the next two or three weeks, a dog will attack my sheep and I will shoot it.”