I’m just back from the dentist. While in the chair, I chatted to the dental hygienist about a recent ordeal involving her beloved dog, Harry. He’d escaped from boarding kennels and had been missing for over a week, eventually turning up 23 miles away, much to his owner’s relief and that of all the local people who’d helped in the search for him.
The dentist commented that at the time, his biggest concern was that a “trigger happy” farmer might’ve taken aim at Harry, had he ventured onto farm land during what would have been the middle of lambing season.
Immediately, I felt obliged to speak up in defence of farmers, lest they’d be portrayed as shotgun-wielding madmen (or women).
But then I remembered a text I’d received from Jack only a few months back . . .
“A dog got at the lambs today,” he’d said. I pictured the friendly little creatures I’d been introduced to not two weeks before: all bright-eyes and spindly legs, bouncing about the place with more curiosity than sense. Easy pickings for a dog of any kind.
However, Jack had been lucky. A neighbour had spotted the German shepherd dog with a lamb in its mouth. She reached for the closest thing she had to a weapon – a Star Wars light saber, as it happened – and made a beeline for the paddock. After a few swipes, the dog beat a hasty retreat.
Thanks to her quick thinking, only one lamb was killed. With most of the ewes on the farm having already given birth and the spell of good weather taking them out to the fields, things could have been much worse.
Jack knows that all too well. This latest dog attack was the fourth in five years on his family’s land. In all cases bar one, sheep were killed.
After the first attack, his father —a man with a great love for dogs— didn’t want to see the animal destroyed, so he settled for the compensation offered by the owner, with the understanding that it wouldn’t happen again.
The second attack took place on a different area of land and resulted in the death of six sheep. That owner refused to surrender his dog, telling Jack and his father that they would have to take him to court if they wished to pursue things further.
Earlier this year, a dog from the same household got in among the sheep again. None were killed, but four slipped lamb.
I thought of my own little dog, almost 18 when he died and mischievous to the last. In his younger years, he’d been something of a canine Houdini – escaping through windows that had been cracked open to air a room, or through the narrow bars on a side gate. I’d wondered what he got up to on these secret excursions, those few glorious hours when he could roam free from the watchful gaze of his owners. One thing’s for sure: living in a small seaside town, his worrying sheep was never a worry of ours!
But things are different in the country.
Until I met Jack, I’d never been in a family home that the dog was forbidden from entering. I know now that this is the norm on most farms, but it’s a rule that has taken some getting used to, and one I had to abide by during a recent weekend spent “farm-sitting” while Jack’s parents attended a wedding.
Knowing about my love of all things furry and four-legged, Jack’s mammy had entrusted me with looking after the sheepdogs. I fed them, and made sure they didn’t stray too far from home during the day. Jess, in particular, made this task a relatively easy one, spending a good amount of her time gazing in at me – pleadingly, as I saw it – through the patio door, while I went about my business in the kitchen.
When they bounded over at the sound of food hitting their metal dishes that first evening, I noted the mucky paws of creatures that relished the freedom they had to explore the fields and yards of the farm. I mentioned to Jack that it might be nice to have the dogs bathed and “fluffed up” for his parents’ return.
I was only half-joking. Back in the day, I would regularly shampoo and blow-dry my own little pup, and there was none of this hose in the garden business either. It was bathtub or bust, as far as I was concerned. The soapy wrestling match that would inevitably ensue was always worth it for the sweet smelling, snow-white bundle of fluff I’d be left with at the end.
Needless to say, Jack wasn’t having any of it. And if the sheepdogs could talk, I reckon they’d have taken a similar stance.
Lapdogs they are not, yet over the two days I spent with them, seeing how they interacted with each other, with me, and with the countryside around them, I couldn’t help but be charmed by these three collies and their brightness, their agility, their attentiveness.
Indeed, in the company of such intelligent and lovable creatures, it’s easy to forget that every dog, no matter its breed or size, has the potential to cause harm.
According to a report released by the Irish Farmers’ Association last year, around 300 to 400 dog attacks take place in this country each year, with an average of 11 sheep killed or injured each time.
It’s hard to know what the solution is. Harsher penalties on owners seems like a given, but I’m loathe to condone the destruction of a healthy dog —especially when the harm it has caused has most likely happened as a result of human complacency. Relocating the animal isn’t much of a solution, either, as it only serves to transfer the problem elsewhere.
Where Ireland is concerned, perhaps the compulsory micro-chipping that came into effect earlier this year might incentivise owners to keep better tabs on their pets. I suppose only time, and next year’s lambing season, will tell.
As for Jack and this most recent attack, again, the owners offered compensation for the dead lamb. When the cheque came, however, it was short of the agreed amount. This, the gesture from a household whose previous dog was responsible for another attack on Jack’s sheep.
So much for once bitten, twice shy.