The Law of Unintended Consequences and Sheep


The Law of Unintended Consequences – “in the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action.” 

Now there is a certain amount of objectivity in this.  Could David Cameron have foreseen the exact outcome we are living through prior to calling the referendum?  We’ll leave that discussion for another day perhaps, so let’s take another example…sheep worrying is an ongoing problem for farmers in the UK.  Sheep do not always behave like those on One Man and His Dog and in fact, nor do dogs. As far as most sheep are concerned, your Cockerpoo is an apex predator of which instinct dictates, they should be scared, very scared.  As far as your dog is concerned, sheep can be at worst prey or at best (some would argue) “playmates”.  Either way, it’s bad news for the sheep and whilst I am sure no one sets out on a dog walk thinking “let’s go and worry some sheep this morning” the law of unintended consequences ensures that if this happens, the implications to everyone involved are significant.

So first the facts:

How much of a problem is it?

In 2017 your average farmer experienced 7 incidents of sheep worrying and the average number of sheep involved in each was 4 sheep injured, and 4 sheep killed.  In 2016 the number was 5 incidents.*  Now two years’ worth of data doth not a trend make, but it is a fact that there were on average 2 more incidents in 2017 over the previous year.  And it seems the problem is heightened where town meets country – “the urban fringe” as it’s apparently called.  Sound familiar?

Is a dog chasing sheep actually illegal?

Sheep worrying – indeed worrying of any livestock -  is a crime under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953.  Whoever is responsible for the dog at the time of any proven incident is committing  a criminal offence, and therefore exposing themselves to a large fine or imprisonment.  This means that dog walkers or family members taking Fido for a stroll are responsible, even if the dog is not theirs.  And perhaps worth mentioning here too, it is also an offence if your dog is “dangerously out of control in a public or private place”.  And by dangerously out of control, they mean that the dog might injure someone OR that the aforementioned someone might just be a little bit AFRAID that they are going to be injured by the dog.  And with the vagaries of that statement in law, it is not a discussion I would like to be on either end of.

If I see an incident of sheep worrying, should I report it?

Yes – it is considered an “Animal Crime” on a par with livestock theft and should be reported on 101.

But the farmer is not REALLY allowed to kill my dog for chasing a few sheep is he?

Yes.  He is.  He can shoot it and then per the Animals Act 1971, he has to report that fact to the police within 48 hours.  And the police can seize a dog proven to have worried sheep and ultimately have the power to have it destroyed.

Yes but even if a dog chases a sheep he’ll never actually kill it….

Dogs can, and do, kill sheep with bite wounds.  However, sheep are not robust creatures, they have fragile Victorian nerves.  They can die from stress over a period of days subsequent to an incident, and they can die from the “unintended consequences” of their own panic. In 2016 a sheep farmer in Chichester lost 116 pregnant ewes in Britain's "worst sheep worrying in living memory" according to The Times.  They were herded for want of a better word, against a fence and died either of crush injuries or shock.  And especially at this time of year, many sheep you will see will be pregnant - 45% of pregnant sheep caught in a dog worrying incident, will abort their lambs*. 

So why am I telling you all this? 

Smallholder Simon plans to move some of his sheep to the field below the orchard on the cart track in Cookham Dean.  He has fenced it off and put up signs asking people to keep their dogs on a lead.  The first step to getting them in the new pasture was to move them into the orchard itself.  Last week, a dog who was not on a lead, escaped into the field and attacked the sheep.  So here comes the law of unintended consequences again…for the man walking that dog (who was not his) that day, all of these outcomes were I am sure, unforeseen and unintentional but consequential none the less.

Because the dog chased the sheep, three are now lame and one has a nasty cut (or possibly a bite) to her ear.  That’s a vet’s bill right there.

Because the sheep are pregnant, they might abort the lambs.  If that happens, that’s sheep that will not be sold and therefore income that will never be earnt – sheep normally have 2 lambs so that’s approximately £300 per ewe that fails to lamb.

Because the sheep are now too fearful to go in the field, Simon is paying rent for an area that he cannot use. 

Because he has rented the additional land to supplement his own tired winter pasture, until he can “persuade” the sheep that it is safe in the new fields, he’s got to provide them with additional feed at a cost.

Because Simon really cares for his animals, he is upset and worried for them.

So the "unintended consequences" to that dog walkers "purposeful action" of letting the dog he was responsible for off the lead, are significantly more than the embarrassing and uncomfortable conversation that two village neighbours shared.  


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