Devastating sheep kills prompt calls for dog control

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Salt Spring livestock farmers are asking members of the public to respect the island’s  agricultural community and to keep their dogs under control following a deadly spate of dog attacks on sheep.

Falcon Farm owners Julia McKinley and Fraser Baldwin lost six breeding ewes and a lamb at the end of March, while eight of their newborn lambs were left orphaned. A nearby neighbour lost one more sheep that same night.

McKinley said she and Baldwin were woken up by a commotion in the sheep barn around 11:30 at night and discovered there had been an attack. They could hear dogs but could not see anything in the dark. They only discovered the true extent of the matter the following morning. 

Five of the ewes they lost were euthanized by veterinarian Aleta Schmah later that day because they were too hurt to be saved. 

“The one mother that was killed outright had two-day-old lambs, so for a sheep farmer, it’s a real heartbreak,” McKinley said. “We just hope the bottle babies survive, and we’ll do our best to feed them.”

Dogs’ natural chase instinct can be deadly even if they don’t use their teeth. Pregnant ewes can be particularly vulnerable and may spontaneously abort when in danger. The Falcon Farm sheep were grievously injured, though, some with their skin torn off and their internal organs left hanging out.

McKinley said her Musgrave Road farm pasture is fenced, but not sufficiently well to keep out determined dogs. She and Baldwin will most likely need to create a smaller area with a secure perimeter. But they wouldn’t need the added expense if people had control of their dogs.

Sheila Windsor of Windsor Farm helped McKinley and Baldwin recover after the attack and gave them milk replacer for the lambs. She knows from experience how devastating such an event can be. While some people on social media have suggested livestock farmers shouldn’t care if their animals are killed, a dog attack means both that an investment is lost and that those animals die in a horrific way.

“There’s a complete difference between one quick shot at the abattoir and being ripped apart alive by a dog,” Windsor observed.

Even more troubling than having this happen on Falcon Farm is the fact it’s suspected the dogs involved are known to island farmers and were the same ones sought after a series of attacks that took place in the north end of Salt Spring in 2018. Windsor said those dogs were seen in the Musgrave Road area and in Fulford in the weeks before the recent killing spree.

Allowing dogs to run at large is an offence under Capital Regional District bylaws. As well, the Right to Farm Act permits farmers to shoot any dogs found on their property that could pose a risk to their operations, whether or not those dogs are actively chasing or harming livestock. 

The CRD can declare a dog to be dangerous and require it to be leashed and muzzled at all times. They can also seize such dogs and either rehome them somewhere where there are no farms, or euthanize them. 

“The trouble is, once a dog gets involved in an attack, usually they are going to do it again,” said Don Brown, CRD chief of animal control and bylaw enforcement. “And if there are two or more dogs, they can kill an animal just by chasing it to death.”

Brown said two of his officers were seeking an island resident believed to own the dogs implicated in the Falcon Farm attack. The dogs may be mixed shepherd breeds. As of last Tuesday, he said that person was no longer at their former residence or job and their phone had been disconnected, so they might have left the island. Even if that person is found, however, Brown said the evidence is “pretty circumstantial.”

Windsor and other island farmers are frustrated by the CRD’s lack of action so far. They believe the suspect dogs are responsible for close to 60 livestock deaths on multiple farms over the past few years and should have been destroyed long ago. At the same time, though, there have been other incidents attributed to different dogs. The overall issue of pet control needs to be addressed, especially during spring, which is lambing season.

“Because of COVID, everyone has dogs now and no one has the proper etiquette,” Windsor said. “These days everyone is getting dogs and having off-leash walks.”

The CRD has a program for compensating livestock owners whose animals are killed by unknown dogs. Known owners of dogs that cause the loss of sheep or lambs are themselves responsible for those costs, but that is not a solution farmers want to see either.

“It’s not okay to [get an offer of] reimbursement when you’ve cared for a sheep for four years and nursed it while it’s giving birth,” Windsor said. “That makes me sick. I did not okay your dog to rip it to shreds while it’s still alive.”

Another damaged Falcon Farm ewe.
Damage caused by a Falcon Farm dog attack.
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