WITH Easter set to see an increase in visitors to the countryside, NFU Mutual is reminding dog-owners to be extra vigilant at a time when sheep and lambs are at their most vulnerable.

The warning comes as deaths and injuries to livestock cost farmers an estimated £359,000 in the South West of England in 2023, up 31 per cent from the previous year, latest figures from NFU Mutual reveal.

Across the UK, the estimated cost of livestock worrying soared by nearly 30 per cent to £2.4-million last year.

At the same time, NFU Mutual’s recent survey of more than 1,100 dog owners found more people were letting their dogs off leads in the countryside last year than in 2022, 68 per cent and 64 per cent respectively.

Worryingly, less than half (49 per cent) said their pet always comes back when called.

Almost eight per cent admitted their dog chases livestock but 46 per cent believed their dog was not capable of causing the death or injury of farm animals.

It comes as the NFU Mutual-backed Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) Bill is making its way through parliament, aimed at improving powers available to police in dealing with dog attacks on livestock.

Farmers Kate Esler and Ed Simmons of Yew Tree Farm, between Clevedon and Weston-super-Mare, are among those to have seen a big rise in the number of dog walkers since the COVID-19 pandemic, with many owners having little or no control over their pets. In the last year they have seen six dog attacks – after 45 years with just a single incident.

Phoebe Turnbull, from NFU Mutual South West, said: “The Easter holidays is a great opportunity to explore the Great British countryside, but people must remember these idyllic rural destinations are working environments, key to farmers’ livelihoods and home to millions of sheep and new-born lambs.

“All dogs are capable of disturbing, chasing, attacking and killing farm animals, regardless of breed, size or temperament.

“That’s why we are urging everyone exercising their dogs in the countryside to keep them on a lead wherever livestock may be nearby but to let go if chased by cattle.”