Dáil Éireann - Volume 346 - 15 December, 1983

Adjournment Debate. - Sheep Losses.

[2705] An Ceann Comhairle: I should like to remind Deputy Walsh who has been given permission to raise losses suffered by sheep farmers in the Dublin mountains in the last week that it is not in order to advocate new legislation or criticise the inadequacy of existing legislation in an Adjournment Debate.

Mr. S. Walsh: I should like to thank the Chair for giving me permission to raise the sheep losses on the Dublin mountains, a part of which is in my constituency. I should like to thank the Minister, and his Minister of State, Deputy Hegarty, for attending at this late hour. With regard to the statement by the Chair at the outset I should like to point out that sheep farmers believe that there is no legislation to deal with marauding dogs. The time for this debate is appropriate in that damage is caused to sheep flocks in the Dublin mountains from midnight onwards and sheep farmers must patrol their land from midnight in an effort to protect their sheep. The problem is not a new one but little has been done to deal with it. The Minister is aware of the problem in that area because he has had to reply to a number of questions in the House about it. He is also aware of the damage dogs can cause because he officiated at the opening of a pound in Waterford which was erected to help the efforts to deal with marauding dogs.

In 1980 sheep farmers on the Dublin mountains had more than 1,000 sheep killed and 1,500 badly injured. I am sure the Minister is aware that after sheep are injured by dogs they are practically worthless. The numbers of sheep killed and injured since 1980 has increased dramatically. When I was chairman of the Dublin County Committee of Agriculture some years ago we discussed this problem. I am not blaming Minister Deasy for the failure to deal with the problem because it has been with us for many years. Successive Governments are to blame. Unless something is done those [2706] farmers will have to cease breeding and rearing sheep.

In other years the problem did not come to light until some time after Christmas but for some unknown reason the dogs have struck early this year. In the last week farmers have found more than 100 sheep that were killed by dogs. I know of one small farmer who lost 50 sheep in the last week. It is easy to calculate the loss he has suffered. In recent weeks we have heard a lot about the super-levy and I appreciate the repercussions for Ireland if it is introduced by the EEC. However, the sheep farmers on the Dublin mountains have suffered the effects of a super-levy for many years because of the destruction caused to their flocks by marauding dogs. I am aware that discussions are taking place between the Departments involved and I hope the Minister will be in a position to tell me that he has proposals to deal with the problem. The question is, how soon will the Minister be able to do something about this? I am sure the Minister, and the Minister of State, are aware that if the trouble continues through the winter the farmers concerned will suffer tremendous losses. The land owned by these farmers is only suitable for sheep grazing but unless they are helped in their efforts to protect their flock they will have to go out of business. Small though the return from sheep rearing is for them if they have to discontinue sheep rearing they will find it impossible to survive on the land.

I am sure the Minister is aware that sheep farmers in Dublin and Wicklow have played a prominent part in sheep breeding down the years. I hope the Minister recognises that and announces that measures will be taken. I am aware that there is a pound in County Wicklow and that efforts are being made to establish one in County Dublin but progress is impeded for reasons I will not refer to tonight. I have not carried out any research on the financing of the Waterford or Wicklow projects but I am satisfied that some finance will be required from the Department to help the project in County Dublin. I understand that in Wicklow and Waterford dog wardens [2707] have been appointed and I appeal to the Minister to consider extending that facility to County Dublin. I was informed tonight that the dog wardens in Wicklow and Waterford have proved successful.

This problem came to my notice first in 1976 but nothing has been done to deal with it since then. The sheep farmers have not received any encouragement. I am sure the Ministers have read newspaper reports of the protest parade by the farmers through Dublin city to highlight the problem. Those farmers were accompanied by a tractor and trailer carrying a number of sheep killed by dogs. The Minister should give this matter serious thought because the farmers concerned have suffered heavy losses down the years. I urge the Minister to take the necessary steps to help those people out of their problems.

Minister for Agriculture (Mr. Deasy): Let me say at the outset that I fully appreciate the concern of the sheep farmers in the County Dublin mountains at the sheep losses suffered by them recently as a result of attacks by marauding dogs. It is not only the sheep farmers in this area who have suffered losses. It is an unfortunate fact that other sheep owners throughout the country will also face these dog attacks during the coming winter. I regret I was unable to meet a farmer delegation yesterday. I was engaged here in the House and elsewhere and I could not meet them. I conveyed that message to Senator McMahon.

The provisions in existing legislation governing control of dogs are quite comprehensive. For instance, the law provides that stray dogs may be seized by the Garda and destroyed if unclaimed within seven days. Furthermore it is illegal for a dog to be any place other than the lands or premises of the owner or person in charge unless it is wearing a collar or harness bearing the owner's name and address. During the hours between sunset and sunrise owners are obliged by law to prevent their dogs from straying. A dog in respect of which an offence is committed may be seized by the Garda and treated as a stray dog. Where a dog [2708] worries livestock on agricultural land, a fine may be imposed on the owner or person in charge of the dog and, if there is no person in charge, the dog may be seized and detained by the Garda and destroyed if unclaimed within seven days. Finally, it is a good defence in an action for damages for shooting a dog that the dog when shot was worrying livestock lawfully on the land, provided that the Garda were notified of the shooting within 48 hours.

It is clear, therefore, that the law as it stands is reasonably adequate as regards the powers available to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, however, in view of the many pressures on the Garda in relation to serious crime and the maintenance of the security of the State, it is virtually impossible for them at present to exercise their functions in relation to the control of dogs to any appreciable extent.

Another factor which militates against proper dog control is that there are five Government Departments involved in the matter — the Department of Finance who are responsible for the licence fee; the Department of Justice, responsible through the Garda, for enforcing the existing legislation; the Department of Health are involved in relation to transmittable diseases and the Department of the Environment who, through the local authorities, have power to give financial assistance to bodies or persons providing homes or shelters for stray animals. The aspects of dog control of most concern to my Department are, of course, those related to attacks on farm livestock and the controls aimed at keeping rabies out of our country.

With a view to having a more coherent and effective dog control system I recently set up an inter-departmental committee to examine all aspects of the problem, including the legislation and the manpower and financial resources required to implement it. The Committee is made up of representatives of the five Departments concerned and has already met on a number of occasions. Their report will be available in the near future. In the light of that report decisions will then have to be made in regard to apportionment [2709] of responsibility for dog control and the means of administering and enforcing it.

We all know that 20 or 30 years ago the Garda were very vigilant in these matters, particularly in regard to dog licensing and stray dogs. Nowadays their duties are so onerous with other serious matters that this seems to be beyond their scope.

Mr. S. Walsh: It is even difficult these days to get a form for a dog licence.

Mr. Deasy: I will convey that to the Garda authorities. Each winter my Department conduct a publicity campaign to warn dog owners of their responsibility and to alert them to the dangers of allowing their pets to roam free in farming areas. This winter's campaign will start shortly. In this connection, I am sure that we will all have seen the rather gruesome pictures of badly mauled sheep both in the Press and on television. I hope that these pictures will have an impact on dog owners. I know that there are quite a number of careless dog owners. I also know that many owners find it difficult to believe that their quiet, friendly, family pets can turn into killers. Unfortunately this is true and it is up to all dog owners to keep their dogs under control at all times, particularly at night. This applies to all dogs whether in town or country, because the evidence shows that not all the damage is done by dogs in urban or suburban areas; in some cases it may be neighbouring farmers' dogs which are guilty.

The Department of the Environment provide a 50 per cent grant to local authorities who are prepared to provide dog shelters, not pounds as they used to be called.

We know that from time to time when we set up committees they do not take much action — it is a sort of cosmetic exercise. However, I hope that on this occasion we will get some positive results. The committee I have been referring to was set up eight or nine months ago and we hope they will report any day. The committee were set up at my instigation because I realised that the division of [2710] responsibility between five Departments is highly unsatisfactory and we would not get anywhere while that situation obtained. I do not know which Department will be given overall control ultimately. The relevant Ministry in Northern Ireland decided that the equivalent of our Department of the Environment have control in this matter. I do not mind which Department have control so long as one body will have complete control.

Before concluding, I would like to compliment those local authorities who have already taken steps to control stray and unwanted dogs in their areas. These schemes are excellent and display a welcome co-operation between the local authorities and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The society, too, deserve great praise for their work on dog control and animal welfare matters generally. In addition, some local authorities are, I understand, tackling the job themselves. In any area where these schemes are operating, there has been a considerable improvement in the stray and unwanted dog situation. Therefore, pending the adoption of a comprehensive system on control, it would behove any local authorities with a serious dog problem to examine the possibility of introducing such a scheme.

A cocker spaniel which one would think would be a friendly, family pet can be a killer when it comes to worrying sheep. I am afraid that is not generally appreciated by dog owners. Therefore it is up to all dog owners to keep their dogs under control at all times but particularly at night. This applies, as I have already pointed out, to town and country because the evidence shows that not all damage is done by dogs in urban or suburban areas and in some cases it may be neighbouring farmers' dogs which cause the damage.

Deputy Walsh referred to Counties Wicklow and Waterford as areas in which dog shelters have been provided. Other areas have taken the same action. South Tipperary has a dog warden system and a shelter and these are being operated by the ISPCA. In Counties Dublin and Kildare there is a considerable interest in [2711] operating such a system. A system is being operated in Counties Louth and Monaghan and I understand County Donegal has a control system. I do not want to pre-empt the report from the departmental committee but I think this all goes back to the local authorities who should have a vested interest in having strays controlled. It is not their primary duty but in co-operation with local authorities, farmers organisations have a role to play.

Deputy Walsh referred to the dogs' shelter in Waterford. It is the first system built dog shelter in the country. It is a very interesting project. We should have a network of such shelters throughout the country. Then we would be able to control the menace very effectively. It is no use having one in every six or seven counties, we must have one in every county.

I stated at the opening of the dog shelter in Waterford that members of local authorities have a very grave responsibility and it is up to them, rather than to be complaining about the menace — I am not being critical of any person — to make a move to get their local authorities involved in setting up a shelter. The shelter in Waterford was set up primarily because of a certain middle aged lady who was very concerned and who absolutely badgered the members of Waterford County Council, including myself. I was one of the people who made the initial move and we provided the money in the local authority estimates on condition that we got 50 per cent from the Department of the Environment. Waterford Corporation, as well as Waterford County Council, provided the rest of the money. This was an excellent project.

Members of local authorities should take note of schemes like that and get on to their county managers and county secretaries to ensure that those homes are set up. The most effective advice I can give here tonight is that the members of local authorities can do a considerable amount in this area. In any area where these schemes are operating, there has been a considerable improvement in the stray and unwanted dogs situation. Therefore, pending the adoption of a [2712] comprehensive system on control, it behoves any local authorities with a serious dog problem to examine the possibility of introducing such a scheme.

Finally, I would like to assure the House that, as far as I am concerned, no avoidable time will be lost in dealing with the report of the inter-Departmental committee and I hope that the follow-up action will bring about the necessary improvements in the not too distant future. I would like to thank Deputy Walsh for raising the matter which needed to be aired. I hope as a result we will push forward and get something concrete achieved in this area.

Mr. S. Walsh: I take it that the Minister will communicate with me regarding this meeting.

Mr. Deasy: Of course. I will let the Deputy know about that through my private secretary.

Mr. N. Treacy: I would like to concur with what Deputy Walsh said about family pets having a killer instinct, because during the Dublin Central by-election a chihuahua on a lead bit a senior politician. I believe the politician and the chihuahua are all right. Could the Minister tell us the number of licensed dogs in the country and could he give us an estimate of the value of sheepmeat lost due to damage done by marauding dogs in any year?

Mr. Deasy: I do not have that information. The Deputy should look at the Official Report because there was a question about the number of dogs licences issued earlier this year. We would need to have a census to find out the number of dogs in the country, deduce how many were licensed and, as a result, how many were unlicensed. There is a vast number of unlicensed dogs throughout the country but I could not put a figure on it. The licensing system is very unsatisfactory. I do not believe that raising the licensing fee from £1 to £5 last year had any real effect.

[2713] Mr. Hegarty: It will not be implemented until the New Year.

Mr. Deasy: It was introduced but it will not be implemented until the New Year.

Mr. Hegarty: The new licence will be £5 per dog for the New Year.

[2714] Mr. Deasy: With regard to the question the Deputy asked about the number of dogs licensed he will find this information in the Official Report.

The Dáil adjourned at 12.30 a.m. on Friday, 16 December 1983, until 10.30 a.m.