For many, walking has become the preferred method of exploring the Scottish countryside, with surveys showing that approximately 48% of adults visit the outdoors at least once a week and many are accompanied by their dog (or dogs).
Whilst the majority of dog owners exercise both themselves and their animals responsibly, in recent years there has been an increase in the instances of dogs chasing, attacking or otherwise worrying livestock. This is of huge concern to both landowners (be they farmers or estate owners) and dog walkers alike. With recent high profile incidents, such as the death of 37 lambs and the injury of a further 28 in Aberdeenshire, where the two dogs involved were shot and killed by the farmer to prevent further deaths, the issue of responsible public access to land is never far from the public consciousness.
So, what does the law say about the public taking access to land?
Under the Law Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, members of the public are permitted to take access to and be on land for recreational or educational purposes, providing these rights are exercised responsibly. Dog owners who live or walk their dogs in the countryside have to be particularly mindful of exercising responsible access.
What does responsible access mean for dog owners?
The Scottish Outdoors Access Code (the Code) offers ample guidance on this topic and generally advises that dog owners should not enter a field where livestock can be found, especially if there are young animals present. Owners should also be aware that cattle may react aggressively to anything they perceive as danger when they have dependant young calves, no matter how well behave a dog may be, and alternative routes should always be sought. If the walk does go through a field where livestock is present, dog owners should keep the dog on a short lead (2 metres or shorter) and under close control. This means that the dog should be kept close at heel even if usually responsive to commands. In addition, the owner should ensure that they and the dog stay as far away as possible from the livestock, and be prepared to release the lead and leave by the shortest, quickest route in circumstances where there are aggressive cattle.
Whilst for many it is difficult to imagine their family pet as being capable of causing injury and in the normal course the majority of dog walking poses no problems, the importance of keeping dogs under proper control in farming areas cannot be understated, as it is a dog's natural instinct to chase. Dog owners who live in or near farming areas should ensure that dogs are safely confined to their properties and unable to escape.
Failure to keep a dog under control can lead to grave consequences, not only for farm animals and farmers, but also for owners who could witness their dog being shot. A survey of National Sheep Association members conducted with the Farmers Guardian found that nearly 30 per cent of sheep worrying cases result in the death of a dog.
It is also important to bear in mind that in terms of the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 it is an offence to allow a dog to worry sheep and if found guilty, a conviction could carry a fine of up to £1,000 and under certain circumstances, the Police may seize the dog. Furthermore, dog owners themselves may be found liable for the injury or damage caused by a dog's biting, savaging or worrying, and compensation may be payable to the affected farmer or landowner.
Of course, this can all be avoided if dog owners are familiar with the guidance provided in the Code and understand what is expected of them and, perhaps most importantly, the consequences of non compliance.