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Park Talk: It pays to be a responsible dog owner

24th March 2023

By Geva Blackett, Cairngorms National Park Authority Board Member

Dogs have always played a huge part in my life; at one time we had four which was really too many as with four children as well, we didn’t have enough sofas to go round. Now we just have two wonderful, but aging chocolate cockers called Rosie and Peggy and the children have grown and left.

When we lived in the centre of Invercauld estate, we were surrounded by fields and often sheep. With four dogs, including a Bearded Collie and a Border Terrier, we had our hands full. Dora, the Beardie, was of course bred to round up while Isla the terrier: to kill! The two Labradors would have been very keen to retrieve anything their partners in crime brought down.

Having grown up on a farm I knew the dangers our dogs posed, and we could never let them off lead when the sheep were there. Sheep are valuable assets, and we didn’t want to find ourselves having to compensate a local farmer because our dogs had chased a sheep and caused harm. We would have found ourselves – quite rightly – out of pocket because our dog had damaged the farmer’s livelihood, to say nothing of the panic felt by the chased animal!

Now we live in the village and Rosie and Peggy are probably too old to chase, but I recognise that despite being usually obedient, every dog has that instinct to chase if another animal runs – and its chasing by dogs that can do serious damage to livestock, even if the dog doesn’t catch them. The stress of worrying by dogs can cause sheep to die and pregnant ewes to miscarry their lambs. Sheep fleeing from dogs are often killed or seriously injured by their panicked attempts to escape. And dogs chasing ewes and lambs can cause mother and baby to become separated resulting in lambs dying from starvation or hypothermia. No one wants to be the inadvertent cause of animal suffering.

Then there is the trauma when a dog actually catches a sheep or lamb – that can be devastating for all involved. That is when the vet bills start adding up – assuming the animal has been injured and survives the attack in the first place. So for the safety of livestock and your pet of course, it really is vital this springtime that you keep your dog on its lead, even if you can usually trust it to come back when you call.

A brisk walk is great for our physical and mental health but please, always be mindful of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code which is very clear when it comes to your responsibilities when out and about with a dog – not entering fields containing young animals, keeping your distance from livestock and keeping the dog on a short lead or close at heel. Under legislation a dog caught amongst sheep could also mean a hefty fine for the owner and the dog being destroyed, which would be heart-breaking – and costly.

The finances of rural businesses are precarious so losses – for example sheep or lambs that have suffered as a result of dogs that are not under control – can have a very negative impact on the bottom line. As members of the public, we have a duty to ensure that we do not find ourselves in a position where we harm the livelihoods of farmers and crofters, who are doing a great job of rearing excellent local produce for us all to enjoy.