When dogs chase animals to death, what should we do?

On Friday Radio 4’s Farming Today and BBC Radio Scotland used my recorded report about farmers worrying about the rush to countryside that was sure to follow the easing of Scottish travel restrictions.

There were concerns about litter, human waste and dogs. I asked both farmers I interviewed to stay in touch and let me know if their fears were confirmed.

Sure enough, on Saturday one of them, Shona Duncan from Drymen, got in touch to tell me she had watched in horror as two “nice wee dogs” chased a young deer to its death.

The dogs and the deer they chased to death, moments after they were caught

The two pet West Highland White Terriers “Westies” were hunting the deer on the main A82 Loch Lomond road at Inveruglas, where Shona helps run a family farm.

The young red deer hind tried to escape by jumping over a fence, but the dogs were hot on her scent, and squeezed under a gate to get to her.

Shona found the dogs minutes later standing on the deer as it gasped its last breath. She believes the dogs had chased the deer onto the road and were tracking her scent as they followed her.

She said: “They were clearly working together to go after this deer.”

It happened on Friday, the first day travel restrictions were eased and people were pouring in to the Highlands for the first time since Christmas.

Ironically Shona, who lives at another family farm at Drymen in Stirlingshire, had just spent the day putting up signs warning people to keep their dogs under control to prevent sheep worrying. She believes the Westies belonged to visitors, although there was no sign of any owners.

Shona Duncan at home in Drymen

She was pulling out of the farm gate in her car on Friday evening when she saw the deer cantering along the road.

“It jumped over the fence just opposite the house,” she said. “Then I look along the road and there’s two dogs tearing along it. They are zigzagging about, obviously on the scent of the deer.

“They went under the gate and I realised what they were doing.” She called her uncle, John Duncan, who lives on the farm, and they ran up the field.

“It only took me minutes, but when we get there the deer is down, gasping and the two terriers are on it. We suspect it had broken its neck. The railway has recently put up a high metal net fence to keep stock off the railway and we think it had run into the fence. It must have been terrified.”

She managed to catch the two dogs and get them on a lead. With no owners to be seen she loaded them into a trailer and took them to Dumbarton Police station, where they were handed over to officers.

She said it is vital to get the message to dog owners that pet dogs can kill wild animals and livestock, and should be kept under control, at a time when the countryside is full of people.

She added: It’s not their fault, they have a hunting instinct, but the owners should keep them under control.

“Once I had got hold of them they just hopped into my trailer. They were nice wee dogs, they weren’t overly aggressive but this is what pet dogs are capable of and people should be aware of that. It could have been one of our sheep, which were also in the field, or a calf.”

Last year one of her family saw dogs chase one of their sheep off a cliff at the Inveruglas farm, and Shona says there have been several other sheep-worrying incidents at Inveruglas, with one sheep dying in a suspected dog attack as recently as last week.

She is now waiting to hear from a police wildlife crime officer to see if the Westies’ owners could be prosecuted. It’s understood the dogs have now been returned to the owners, and Shona is concerned they might even not be made aware of what they have done.

Police Scotland told me “enquiries are ongoing” into the incident.

In my report on Friday I included a recording of Sheila Bannerman, from Balmaha, describing to me in real time a bit of sheep-worrying as we watched it on the side of Conich Hill behind her house. Her ewes fled from a large black dog as it hared down the hill towards them.

The sheep survived but they were pregnant and the fear was that they might abort their lambs or suffer other complications, such was their obvious terror.

I truly love dogs, and enjoy their company and simple joyfulness.

But it all begs the question, should we put more constraints on access for dogs to the countryside? Should all dogs in open country, or farmland, be on leads? Should we be compensating landowners for the impacts on their livestock? Should we tolerate the effects of millions of predators – dogs are, of course, basically wolves, even when they are cute wee Westies – on our wildlife?

Or are dogs terrifying and killing other animals a price we’re willing to pay to be able to walk our pets in the countryside?

Answers on a postcard, please…