It is one of the most heart-warming scenes in the countryside – ewes with lambs at foot grazing peacefully in a lush green meadow.

Fakenham & Wells Times: Dogs should always be on a lead around livestock. Picture: ArchantDogs should always be on a lead around livestock. Picture: Archant (Image: Archant)

At the end of a busy lambing season there is nothing more satisfying for a shepherd than to see the results of his, or her, hard work flourishing in the fields.

But sadly, that tranquil springtime scene is all too often being turned into a bloody massacre, thanks to irresponsible dog owners.

Dog attacks on livestock, particularly sheep and lambs, are on the increase and despite repeated calls from the farming community the message is still not being heard that all dogs must be kept on leads where animals are grazing.

Rural insurer NFU Mutual said the number of dog attacks on livestock increased by almost 50 per cent last year with the total cost to the industry estimated at more than £1.4m.

Fakenham & Wells Times: A ewe with lambs. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA WireA ewe with lambs. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

But the fact that farmers are legally allowed to shoot dead an attacking dog as a last resort, as long as they believe their sheep to be in immediate danger, and a person found guilty of allowing their dog to worry livestock can be fined up to £1,000, it does not appear to be an adequate deterrant.

In 2015 the cost of claims reported to NFU Mutual in the east of England was £1,666. In 2016 that figure had shot up nearly six times that amount to £9,224.

But many attacks are still going unreported, as farmers often have little faith that any action will be taken and often the culprits are long gone. And the actual cost to the farmer is much greater both financially and emotionally with the stress and anxiety caused.

Tim Price, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: 'It's not just big, aggressive-looking dogs that attack livestock – well-behaved family pets can worry sheep or cattle. And once a dog has attacked livestock, there is a high probability that it will strike again.

'We are sadly all too aware of the heartbreak and huge financial loss that dog attacks cause. Unfortunately, not all farmers are insured and they can face substantial costs if they lose a number of animals.

'For small and hobby farmers in particular, livestock worrying is devastating. While insurance can cover the cost of replacing stock killed and the treatment of injured animals, the stress of worrying can cause ewes to abort their lambs. This leads to a knock-on effect on breeding programmes that can take years to overcome.'

Various campaigns have been launched to try and tackle the problem.

The NFU joined forces with The Kennel Club to make countryside dog walks safer and more stress-free for both pet dogs and farm animals, by creating new footpath signs which encourage responsible dog ownership.

The signs, which farmers can display on fences and gateposts, were launched at Crufts and aim to help dog owners enjoy the UK's landscapes while avoiding causing unintentional injury or distress to sheep and cattle.

A report in the Veterinary Record published last month suggests vets can also help to try and reverse the sorry statistics.

Editor Adele Waters says: 'Vets can help in two ways. First, by encouraging farmers to report attacks to the police and insist on getting a crime reference number. Figures will mean these crimes will become more visible and could help bring about pressure for change – in terms of recognition of the problem, more prosecutions and possibly even legislative reform.

'Second, vets have an important role in seizing moments to educate dog owners about responsible dog handling when out on country walks.'

Martin Wardle-Rogers, who runs Norfolk & Lincolnshire K9 Dog Training with courses in West Acre near Swaffham and Tydd St Mary near Wisbech, said award schemes such as the Kennel Club Good Citizen Awards could do with some updating on their advice regarding livestock and perhaps even shock tactics need to be employed.

'I always stress about livestock to my students, having owned and been involved with horses as well as having trained two of my dogs to work on sheep,' he said.

'I feel for farmers and shepherds and feel that media coverage needs to be more graphic and laws need to be more meaningful as there are unfortunately a lot of dog owners out there that are not 100 percent in control of their dogs and not what I would call responsible.'

The statistics:

The National Sheep Association (NSA) carries out a 'sheep worrying by dogs' survey annually.

The 2016 results were obtained through responses from 233 farmers from around the UK, all of whom had suffered dog attacks.

82pc had sheep killed in an attack and the average number of sheep lost was four.

The most common level of attacks is between two and five per year but three respondents said they experienced between 50 and 100 per year and two said they have more than 100.

72pc were due to dog owners not putting their dogs on a lead and 71pc due to dog owners assuming their pet wouldn't attack livestock or do damage. Nearly two thirds said dog owners had a complete lack of concern on the issue.

When asking dog owners to put their dog on a lead the most common response was verbal abuse, but 19pc of those receiving a negative response suffered intimidation by the dog and 10pc had been victims themselves of vandalism or some other form of retribution.

On impact on the farmer, financial loss was only the fourth highest main impact behind personal anxiety and stress. 24pc had gone as far as considering giving up sheep.