Farming the moors
When farmers keep livestock on open land like commons there are sometimes problems – especially when the locations are popular beauty spots.
Martin Hesp has been speaking to a woman whose job it is to broker peace.
When mankind rubs up against the natural environment there is often friction – and sometimes the battleground can turn bloody.
Dartmoor farmers not only have to cope with dogs attacking their sheep, but are now seeing disturbing cases of mutilated sheep, with meat 'joints' carefully cut away
•••..That is certainly the case in some of the beauty spots of southern Dartmoor, where the hills loom close to Plymouth – and the person who witnesses some of the blood-letting is Dartmoor livestock protection officer Karla McKechnie.
The conflict occurs because people who live in urban environments keep animals just like the ones who live in the countryside – the trouble is that the pet dogs so beloved by many city and town dwellers don't necessarily get along too well with the agricultural animals kept by farmers and commoners who rear them to make a living.
Which is why the bulk of Karla's work centres upon the problems of dogs worrying, or harming, livestock.
There is, however, an alarming new trend on the moors – as we report on our front page today, it seems there are people who will kill farm animals in-situ where they hack off the best bits of meat.
Karla has recently been called out to several incidents where mutilated sheep have been found.
At first she thought she was on her way to see the results of another dog attack, only to find that prime joints like the leg and shoulder had been carefully cut away.
"They're the sort of joints you'd have in a roast dinner," she told me. "I saw another killed which had all its legs removed."
As she says, this is a deeply worrying development and Karla really will need to "watch this space", to put it in her own words.
But it's those loveable pet dogs which are the worst enemy of livestock on the southern commons of Dartmoor.
"This year alone there were 41 recorded dog attacks – 20 of those logged with the police," says Karla.
"More people are using the moors – and more dog-owners are using the moors. Which is fine. I have dogs myself. I love dogs. But they must be under control."
Inevitably, the word "lead" comes into Karla's conversation a lot.
"We are trying to encourage Dartmoor National Park Authority to enforce more – they can make people put dogs on leads.
We think they need to get a bit tougher with people – they need to say: 'If you can't trust your dog don't walk it on the moors without a lead'."
Karla has been in the job for nearly a year, but has been involved with animal welfare in a different guise on Dartmoor for the past 14 years.
"I've worked closely with the moors before and am really passionate about the place," she told me. "As I work alone in this job I mainly rely on phone calls from the public.
I have witnessed quite a few incidents (of sheep worrying) but I do rely on people to call me.
"Sometimes I can get to an incident before the dog owners leave. I had a call recently about a dog killing a lamb – I was able to get there and then able to get the police there straight away.
We also got the farmer – we were all up there with the owners of the dog – and able to settle on compensation.
"A lamb was killed and their big dog had killed it. No, it wasn't put down.
The police were happy to prosecute, but the decision came down to the farmer and he accepted an amount of money in compensation."
I put it to Karla that such incidents were all part of the kind of inevitable narrative you find when large cities border beautiful open spaces.
"Yes, places like Roborough Down are a kind of back garden for Plymouth," she agreed. "They're the first port of call on the moors for Plymouth residents.
Some of them will go to Yelverton and Roborough Down, let their dog out of the car and sit there reading the newspaper – letting the dog do whatever it wants.
"I put posters up everywhere so my number is widely circulated – obviously I can't put myself everywhere all the time.
And I would probably not confront certain dog owners. You have to be careful about confrontation, you never know what you are going to get back.
"I say to people who help me – get the car registration. We've been given a PSP number – which is a Problem Solving Plan – so when I phone the police and log an incident I give our number to them and they instantly know it's a dog attack and they know it is a serious problem."
The legalities behind this issue are complex to say the least – and to help me understand them I turned to Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, who has a particular interest in and knowledge of Dartmoor.
"The Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society (DLPS) would like it to be a criminal offence for a dog to worry livestock on common land and a criminal offence for a dog to be off leads or out of control on common land where there is stock grazing – and for these provisions to be effectively enforced by the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) and the police," she told me.
"The DLPS wants everyone to be able to use and enjoy the moor in harmony – farmers and walkers – for the good of the stock, farmers' livelihoods, the vegetation and biodiversity, public enjoyment, archaeology etc."
Kate said that there were numerous Acts of Parliament which touched both upon common land and dog control with regard to livestock.
One (passed in 1953) makes it an offence for a dog to be at large in a field or enclosure in which there are sheep – but does not make it an offence for a dog to be at large on land where the public has freedom to roam.
However, Dartmoor's commons and some of its non-common access land are covered by another Act passed in 1985 which gives the DNPA the power to post notices on the commons saying that the 1953 Act applies – in other words: that it is a criminal offence for a dog to be off the lead or out of control in that particular open area.
"The DNPA rarely uses this provision and the DLPS would like it to do so, and to be swift to enforce transgressions," Kate explained.
"The DLPS wants dog owners to be aware that they must not allow their dogs to worry livestock and that if they do they risk prosecution."
Out on the south Dartmoor commons, Karla McKechnie put it another way: "We just want people to be responsible.
The moor is such a fantastic place to come to – but it's paramount that people's livestock can graze the moors safely."
Anyone who witnesses livestock being harmed on Dartmoor can call 07873 587561.
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