In January this year, John McNamara and his dog were trampled to death by a herd of cows while out walking on a farm in East Sussex. 87-year-old Hilary Adair was also trampled to death by cattle in West Sussex. Tragic accidents like these have called for livestock farmers to take steps in preventing incidents involving dog walkers with cows and calves.
As our population swells, public entry into the countryside increases in importance and the circumstances where walkers and livestock come into contact with each other becomes more frequent. There is a considerable network of public rights of way in the UK which are regularly used by walkers and others, often accompanied by their dogs. In addition, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) gave the public the right to walk on mapped access land which includes mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. Open access or access along specified routes is also permitted on other land.
Farmers have a responsibility for the safety of the animals in their fields, and for those walking across their land. Farmers who keep livestock in fields crossed by public rights of way may face civil and/or criminal proceedings if members of the public are injured by their livestock.
All large animals are potentially dangerous, even cattle that are bred from a normally quiet temperament. Farmers understand that under stress due to weather, illness, unusual disturbance, or when maternal instincts are aroused, even placid cattle can become aggressive. The trouble is many members of the public won’t recognise the signs of stress.
How can livestock farmers minimise risk to the public?
If there are particular animals that are likely to become upset with the presence of people in their field, they should be kept away from places with public access or fields where walkers are known to stray. There are some livestock species and breeds of bull that are prohibited from being in a field containing a right of way so farmers should be aware of what breeds these are.
Cattle with calves at foot can present a risk due to protective maternal instincts, especially when a dog is present. When selecting a paddock in this instance, consider the members of the public who won’t recognise the behavioural characteristics of cattle.
Before you put cattle in fields with public access it is good practice to:
- Assess whether the animals in the herd are generally placid and well-behaved
- If possible, use fields or areas not used by the public when cattle are calving or have calves at foot, especially during periods of greater public use such as school holidays
- Assess whether calves kept with the herd will affect the behaviour of older cattle
- Consider whether it is practicable to temporarily fence alongside a public right of way so that the cattle and the public are kept separate
- Plan the location of handling and feeding areas away from public rights of way to reduce the possibility of stock congregating around the route.
Where the landowner and the cattle owner are not the same person there may be some joint responsibility and it is the duty of both parties to agree a course of action.
In addition to following best practice, farmers should display signs informing the public when a bull, or cows with calves, are in the area. Signs may limit a farmer’s liability should an incident occur, but is no assurance against negligence being proven against them in the event that a member of the public suffers injury or distress whilst crossing the field. Signs should be informative and accurate, and should be securely covered when the animals to which they refer are no longer present in the field or area. Misleading signs which deter the public from exercising their right of responsible access are likely to be regarded as obstruction and should never be used.