DOG attacks on farm animals in the South West cost more than £185,000 last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic brought a surge in pet ownership and countryside visitors.

That's according to new statistics released by rural insurer NFU Mutual, which conducted a survey of dog owners - finding that 64 per cent allowed their pets to roam free in the countryside, despite half of them admitting that their dog doesn't always come back when called.

The research also revealed that 42 per cent of dog owners have been walking their pets more often in the countryside during the pandemic, and that 81 per cent of survey respondents have noticed more people exercising their pets in rural areas.

This is a concern for sheep farmers, as they enter the peak lambing period, when pregnant ewes and newborn lambs are vulnerable to attack.

Roz Hills, South West regional manager at NFU Mutual, said: “With more people walking in the countryside as Covid-19 restrictions continue and an increase in dog ownership, we have seen horrific attacks resulting in large numbers of sheep being killed and a trail of horrific injuries.

“These attacks cause unbearable suffering to farm animals as well as huge anxiety for farmers and their families as they deal with the aftermath.

“It’s a critical time in the farming calendar and there is widespread concern as we enter the peak lambing season, that there will be a surge in new visitors who are simply unaware of the countryside code or how their dog will behave around farm animals."

In 2020, the UK-wide cost of dog attacks on livestock reached an estimated £1.3m - an overall increase of more than 10 per cent.

The worst-affected region by cost was the North East, where farm animals worth £240,000 were savaged by dogs.

The next most impacted areas were the Midlands, the South West and Wales.

Hills added: “Even if a dog doesn’t make physical contact, the distress and exhaustion of the chase can cause sheep to die or miscarry their lambs.

"It’s important that owners realise that all dog breeds, not just the big, fierce looking ones, are capable of attacking livestock, or chasing them.

“We want people to enjoy the countryside as it’s so important for people’s wellbeing.

"It’s vital that dog owners act responsibly and keep dogs on a lead at all times whenever there is a possibility livestock are nearby.”

Organic beef and lamb farmers - and brothers - Andrew and Ian Westlake have farmed 200 hectares of land near Branscombe in East Devon for more than 30 years, together with Andrew’s wife Nicola.

The number of dog attacks on their land has forced them to take drastic action in the past by dramatically reducing the size of their flock.

Ten years ago they had around 400 ewes whereas now they have just 90, so they are more contained and protected.

Nicola said: “Around 50 per cent of our fields have public rights of way which can make things challenging.

"Last year one of our pregnant ewes was attacked in a field that is well fenced and has no public access. It’s difficult to understand how the dog got in.

“We received a call from our neighbour who happened to be passing nearby on a walk when she noticed lots of crows circling over the field.

"She went down to check and realised they were pecking at this poor sheep who was lying there with terrible injuries - it was horrific.

"As soon as we could get there, we had to put her to sleep to end her suffering.

“Luckily it was only the one but, really, that does not matter.

"It is still a life and they are your animals.

"You do what you can to keep them safe, well fed and protected.

"You also always think very carefully about where you put them - we thought she was in a field that was safe.”

Nicola says the experience is also extremely traumatic for the other pregnant ewes which witnessed the dog attack.

She said: “When we got there they were all huddled together in the corner of the field.

"For days afterwards they stayed like that, all grouped together.

“It’s absolutely heart-breaking and this type of incident cuts across all types of farming.

"The majority of farmers do care massively about their animals and it’s so much more than just a business.

“The key message for me is that you really can’t be sure that your dog won’t chase sheep," she added.

"People feel confident that their dog won’t be the one that does attack.

"You cannot be certain and that is why walkers should always keep their dogs on a lead.”