Farm Ireland

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Are farmers within their rights to shoot dogs which attack sheep?

Both farmers and dog owners must be clear on their rights.
Both farmers and dog owners must be clear on their rights.

Theresa Murphy

The IFA estimate that upwards of 3,000 livestock are lost each year to dog attacks. It's an estimate based on the average annual incidence of dog-on-sheep attacks of 300 - 400 as an average of ten sheep are killed in each attack.

For many sheep farmers with ewes close to lambing or vulnerable young lambs in fields the fear of death and injury from attacks is high.

Both farmers and dog owners must be clear on their rights and responsibilities when it comes to their animals.

While many farmers know their duty under the law in the case of domestic animals like their cattle and sheep, liability for dogs has separate rules to those applied in the case of other animals.

For instance, in the case of injury or damage to livestock which is caused by a dog, the owner is responsible regardless of the dog having previously attacked or having a 'mischievous tendency'. It is clear that the dog must actually inflict the injury for the owner to be liable.

However, there is previous case law in Ireland surrounding liability where dogs have caused injury to animals in the case of them bolting.

One such case involved frightened foals as a result of which they bolted and injured themselves - meaning the dog owner was not responsible.

However, in the case of dogs frightening sheep and causing injury either through death as a result of fright or loss of unborn lambs as a result of dogs, farmers can make a claim against the dog owner in circumstances where they have evidence to show that the injury was a direct result of the actions of the dog. For example, a statement from a vet which indicates that a dog caused the injuries.

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Farmers intending on making a claim must also be able to show what dog caused the injuries and this may be difficult where there has been no physical attack - only suffocation or injury through fear.

Farmers must also bear in mind that they must be able to show that the dog in question caused the injuries 'on the balance of probabilities' which is the test applied by the courts.

The Control of Dogs Act 1986, as amended by the Control of Dogs (Amendment) Act 1992, sets out the principal rules pertaining to liability for damage caused by dogs.

If a dog worries livestock, Section 9(2) of the Act provides that the owner or any other person in charge of the dog shall be guilty of an offence.

One exception to this rule, is where the livestock have wandered on to the dog owner's land and the dog has attacked as a result. In this case, the owner of the dog would not normally be liable.

Shooting Dogs

A common question which comes from farmers who have sheep in fields, is whether or not they can shoot a dog which is in the midst of an attack or has attacked sheep.

The rules in relation to the shooting of dogs is set out in Section 23 of the Control of Dogs Act.

The person who shoots the dog must be able to show that:

The dog was shot when it was worrying, or was about to worry, livestock and that there were no other reasonable means of ending or preventing the worrying; or

The dog was a stray dog in the vicinity of a place where livestock had been injured or killed, and the defendant reasonably believed that the dog had been involved in the injury or killing, and there were no practicable means of seizing the dog or ascertaining to whom it belonged;

And he was the person in charge of the livestock; and he notified, within 48 hours, the member in charge at the nearest Garda station to the place where the dog was shot in the incident.

While the law clearly states that there are circumstances where an attacking dog can be shot, you should bear in mind the priority should be to stop the dog where possible rather than shoot it as in many cases the owner will be a neighbour!


In the case of dog attacks on people, the liability of the owner is similar in that the owner will be responsible regardless of whether the dog has previously attacked or not. Many people incorrectly believe that dogs can bite once without the owner being liable but that is just a myth.

A dog owner will also be responsible for injuries caused by dogs to trespassers if they have been in any way negligent so it is always advisable to notify trespassers of the presence of a dog by clearly displaying a sign.

The law relating to owners of wild dangerous class animals is, in effect, that they are kept at the owner's risk and if they cause any damage, the owner is responsible for that damage.

For this rule to apply an animal must belong to a dangerous class of animals.

In the past the courts have considered animals like lions and tigers to be 'wild'. It is likely that with the growing tendency to keep pets like snakes, spiders and some species of dogs, this will become a bigger issue.

Statistics collated by IFA indicate the problem of dog attacks on sheep may be in the order of 300 to 400 attacks per annum, with 3,000 to 4,000 sheep injured and killed. Data gathered by the IFA shows an average of 11 sheep killed or injured per attack.

All dog owners need to microchip and register their dogs by March 31, 2016 under the new Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013.

Free microchipping is available from participating veterinary practices for the month of March under a campaign from FIDO and Dogs Trust. Let's hope it makes a difference.

Theresa Murphy is a barrister based in Co Galway

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