The cost of dog attacks on livestock has increased by over 10 percent to £1.3 million as the pandemic sees a surge in people visiting the countryside.
New figures by NFU Mutual show the extent of livestock worrying as farmers continue to see attacks resulting in large numbers of sheep killed or injured.
Now there is growing concern among producers that the spring lockdown will see another influx of walkers unfamiliar with the countryside code.
It comes as many farmers are under stress as they enter the peak lambing period when pregnant ewes and new born lambs are vulnerable to attack.
A new survey by NFU Mutual in January 2021 reveals that 64% of owners were letting their pets roam free in the countryside, with half of those saying their dog did not always come back when called.
It revealed that 42% of owners had been walking their pets more often in the countryside during the pandemic, and that 81% had noticed more people exercising their dogs in rural areas.
A heavily pregnant Highland cow was also killed by a loose dog in January, leaving the farming family 'devastated'.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said the attacks on sheep were causing 'huge anxiety' for farmers and their families.
“There is concern as we enter the peak lambing season, that there will be a surge in visitors who are unaware of the countryside code or how their dog will behave around farm animals.
“It’s vital that dog owners act responsibly and keep dogs on a lead whenever there is a possibility livestock are nearby.”
Alarmingly, only 40% of the dog owners surveyed accepted that their pet could cause the injury or death of a farm animal.
Even if a dog does not make physical contact, the distress and exhaustion of the chase can cause sheep to die or miscarry their lambs.
"It’s important that owners realise that all dog breeds, not just the big, fierce looking ones, are capable of attacking livestock, or chasing them," Ms Davidson added.
“Although we had seen some encouraging decreases in the overall UK cost of livestock attacks over the last two years, sadly 2020 has seen an upward trend.”
Owners’ responses to seeing dogs attacking livestock have also changed during the pandemic, with only 33% saying they would report an attack taking place to police or a local farmer.
In 2020, the worst-affected region by cost was the North East, where farm animals worth an estimated £240,000 were savaged by dogs.
The next most seriously-affected areas were the Midlands, South West and Wales.
How can I walk my dog safely?
To make dog walking safe, NFU Mutual has issued the following advice to the public:
• Always keep dogs on the lead when walking in rural areas where livestock are kept but let go of the lead if chased by cattle
• Be aware that even small dogs can chase, injure and kill farm animals
• Take special care to keep close control of dogs unused to farm animals
• Report attacks by dogs and sightings of dogs roaming the countryside to the police or local farmers
• Don’t let dogs loose and unsupervised in gardens adjoining livestock fields – many attacks are caused by dogs which escape and attack sheep grazing nearby