LAMBING time has already started for some farmers in the North -– and so have the reports of dog attacks on sheep.

A newborn Zwartble lamb was found dead on a family farm near Saltburn with puncture wounds to its skull and jaw, which the flock's owner believes were caused by a dog.

And reports of attacks on social media include incidents in County Durham.

Flocks are particularly vulnerable in lambing time. Dogs running free among pregnant ewes can cause huge damage even if they do not make physical contact with the sheep, and young lambs also make easy victims when attacks take place.

Last year the Darlington & Stockton Times, in conjunction with sister titles The Northern Echo and The Northern Farmer launched a Lead The Way campaign in response to a rising tide of incidents involving dogs and livestock.

We are calling for the law to be updated, and in particular for it to be compulsory to have dogs on leads around farm animals.

Our lambing time message is a bid to help raise awareness among pet owners of the need to take particular care in the countryside at this critical time in the sheep farming calendar.

This message has gained backing from North Yorkshire Police and a regional NFU uplands representative.

Inspector Jon Grainge, of North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Taskforce, said: “It is a criminal offence to allow your dog to worry sheep.

"Even if your dog does not actually attack an animal, being chased by a dog can cause sheep to die and pregnant ewes to miscarry their lambs.

“Unfortunately we have seen a number of dog attacks in our region over the past year, which have resulted in both sheep and lambs dying from some horrific injuries. From a farmer's point of view, these attacks affect livelihoods and nationally cost the farming community millions each year.

"But it’s not just the financial implications; to find sheep from your flock who have been attacked and left to die a slow and painful death is incredibly upsetting, especially when these attacks are preventable.

“With lambing season starting soon, dog owners need to be vigilant and responsible for their pets. Always ensure your dog is on a lead and under control. If you live in rural locations, ensure your dog is secure when at home and cannot escape from the home or garden.

“We understand no owner sets out for a walk in the country with the intention to allow their dog to attack sheep. However, owners need to recognise that if their dog is responsible for an attack, they are liable to face a hefty fine at court and potentially have their dog destroyed."

Richard Pedley, an NFU Uplands Forum representative, said the problem was becoming more common, but added: "If owners are responsible I have no problem with anyone walking anywhere."

Mr Pedley, whose family runs more than 1,000 sheep on land near Carnforth which is within the recently extended Yorkshire Dales National Park, said many owners did not believe their pets were capable of attacking sheep.

Several years ago two of his sheep were killed and four were injured by a young Labrador which had escaped. The dog was retrained and he understood it had not looked at a sheep since.

He said people should use their common sense around livestock, including cows with young calves as well as sheep with lambs, while out in the countryside in the spring. They should definitely have their dogs on a lead around farm animals.

"The message is just to enjoy the countryside. It's a working environment. People's livelihoods are at stake.

"If your dog does get loose it can cause upset to sheep and cause abortions if sheep are frightened," said Mr Pedley.

RURAL insurer NFU Mutual estimated that the cost of dog attacks to farming in 2017 was £155,000 in the North-East.

The company said the peak time for attacks was January to April; ten per cent of dog owners did not put dogs on leads near farm animals; and sheep with newborn lambs were especially vulnerable.

Research done last year for NFU Mutual suggested almost seven per cent of owners admitted their pets had chased farm animals in the past and one in ten owners did not put their pets on a lead if they saw a sign warning that livestock were in a nearby field.

The insurer was also increasingly concerned by reports that many attacks were being caused by dogs which were let out in gardens and attacked sheep in neighbouring fields. NFU Mutual’s research found that 43 per cent of owners allowed their dog to go outside unaccompanied while they were not at home.

“These attacks cause tremendous suffering to livestock and are hugely distressing for farmers and their families who have to deal with aftermath of an attack,” said Tim Price, of NFU Mutual.

The company has advice for dog owners:

n Always keep dogs on the lead when walking them in rural areas where livestock are kept

n Even small lap dogs can attack farm animals

n Report attacks by dogs and sightings of dogs roaming the countryside to local farmers or the police

n Familiarise puppies with farm livestock from a young age to reduce the risk of them attacking sheep or cattle as adult dogs

n Do not let dogs loose in gardens adjoining livestock fields – many attacks are caused by dogs which escape and worry sheep grazing nearby.

NFU Mutual’s figures for the cost of attacks in 2018 are likely to be released this month.