Guest blog by Stephen Jenkinson, Kennel Club Access and Countryside Advisor

Cattle at start of footpath © S Jenkinson

Dogs are officially one of the best motivators for getting you active in the great outdoors, reducing the risks of getting heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Our dogs can be rightly seen as our Natural Health Service!

But tragically for a few people each year, walking their pets and assistance dogs in the outdoors can end in life-changing injuries and death when they encounter cattle.

Since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, local councils have been working to ensure everyone can enjoy the benefits of walking in town, coast and country whatever their level of mental or physical ability. The removal of needless barriers like stiles and steps, and better information about where you can go and what you can do, benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. To me there’s no better tonic than being out in the fresh air with your dog.

Assistance dogs are a real help too, with former Government Minister and MP David Blunkett’s former guide dog Sadie being no exception. But in 2009, his birthday walk in the Peak District National Park left him lucky to be alive, suffering broken ribs and extensive bruising after a cow lunged at on-lead Sadie and knocked David to the ground.

Ten years on, cows are still the UK’s most deadly animal according to Government figures, with around five people being killed each year since the start of this century. That makes them nearly three times deadlier than dogs, even though sensationalist media reports can suggest the opposite to be true.

While farm workers are most at risk, around a quarter of all victims are countryside visitors crossing farmland; walkers with dogs are the most likely victims. Even when the incident is not fatal, many people still suffer life-changing injuries such as punctured lungs, bruising, black eyes, joint dislocation, nerve damage and being knocked unconscious.

Ill-informed comment on social media can alas all too frequently indulge in victim blaming, assuming the dog was out of control or the owner irresponsible. The David Blunkett incident shows that in reality responsible people with very well-trained dogs are still at risk.

The Health and Safety Executive have for decades told farmers they must take responsibility and minimise risks, by taking account of where walkers with, and without, dogs can legitimately go, and manage their grazing accordingly. Farmers are also advised to erect signs indicating fields where cattle are actually present, and cover them, or take them down, when the animals have gone. Even then, the reality that people with visual impairments are present in all parts of the countryside means relying on signs is not good enough. Moreover, the countryside cliché of signs stating “beware of the bull” belie the reality that cows with calves account for 91% of walker fatalities.

Good grazing management is also in the farmer’s best interests because as with any workplace injury, apart from being prosecuted for a health and safety breach, the grazier can also be sued. In 2009 Blackpool County Court ordered farmer John Cameron to pay £250,000 as the first phase of compensation, plus £100,000 in costs, after his cattle attacked dog-walker Shirley McKaskie, leaving her in a wheelchair with broken bones and brain damage.

To help walkers know how best to keep themselves safe, in 2015 the Kennel Club (KC) worked with Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and a range of countryside and farming organisations to produce the Dog Walking Code which includes detailed, practical advice on how to stay S.A.F.E around cattle.

While the Code was placed on the gov.uk website, due to Government cutbacks and policy changes only a handful of hard copies of the leaflet were printed.

Crufts 2019 demo © S Jenkinson

A subsequent investigation by the University of Liverpool showed that even if dog owners looked for advice online, the Government’s official advice did not appear, and instead they were still faced with unclear and conflicting information from a variety of unofficial sources. For this reason, for the first time at Crufts 2019 there were several daily demonstrations in the KC’s Good Citizen Scheme ring on how best to walk safely past sheep and cattle.

Poorly-worded signage erected by land owners also contributes to the confusion and risk of injury. For example, some sheep farmers’ organisations have erected signage demanding walkers always keep their dogs on leads everywhere the countryside (even in woodland where there’s no sheep), without addressing the concerns of cattle farmers who want people to release their pets if chased or threatened by cows.

Similarly, signage saying “always stick to paths” can mean walkers think they are doing the right thing by going between cows and calves, when it’s actually safer to leave the official path and go around them.

While sheep worrying is a wholly understandable concern, it is very disappointing that such dangerous advice in human terms is carelessly given out by parts of the farming industry, when Police figures show most sheep worrying incidents arise from dogs escaping, or being allowed out alone, from nearby homes, and not dogs being taken for a walk.

In truth, both sheep worrying and walkers being killed by cattle are unacceptable; we must to do more to stop the needless carnage. And yet the current reality is that even though the annual £1.5 million cost of sheep worrying is roughly the same as the cost to society of just one dog-walker fatality, politicians and the press have for the very most part focussed their attentions on the suffering of sheep, at the expense of preventing human deaths.

Do remember though that with 10 million cattle and around 20 billion dog walks each year in the UK, fatalities are numerically very rare.

Sign on a path in Cornwall © S Jenkinson

To reduce the risks even further, farmers participating in a recent KC supported pilot project in Cornwall showed that the best way to avoid injuries is to give walkers an informed choice to avoid cattle. This can be done by indicating an alternative route through an adjacent field, or by using temporary electric fencing to provide a cow-free corridor around the edge of a field.

The KC’s Public Affairs team continues to support the wider application of such proven good practice on all farms with cattle. Alas it also needs to keep challenging the still all-too-apparent misleading advice and victim blaming, that means once again this year what should be a happy, healthy dog walk for someone will end in tragedy.

To stay SAFE around farm animals and horses:

  • Stop, look and listen before entering a field; be aware of any animals present
  • Always keep your dog on a short lead
  • Find the safest route around animals, giving them plenty of space
  • Exit the area calmly and quickly if threatened, releasing your dog to make it easier for you both to reach safety
  • Download the Dog Walking Code at www.dogwalkingcode.org.uk
  • Report incidents and near-misses involving cattle and walkers to the Health and Safety Executive (www.hse.gov.uk) and the local council’s access officer.

Stephen will be joining us as a speaker at our Power of Dogs event in Bristol, on 14 November. Join us to hear him talk about ‘ From coasts to cows – having safe and happy dog walks.’