Northern Ireland Water, the Mourne Heritage Trust and the National Trust are calling for dog owners to keep their dogs under control following a recent spate of attacks on livestock.

The organisations are calling for owners to ‘take the lead in the Mournes’ with the aim of raising awareness about livestock attacks and wildlife disturbances resulting from dogs that are off lead.

Over half a million people visit the Mournes each year, with many bringing their dogs with them.

Sam McConnell of Mourne Conservation Graziers said there is a long history of grazing livestock on the Mournes, and that these traditional farming practices have helped to create the landscape of the Mournes.

“Historically, mountain areas were grazed by a mixture of sheep and cattle, creating species rich landscapes and grazing forms part of good management of the Mournes, as some habitats rely on it for their good condition or even existence.

“Livestock worrying up here in the Mournes is becoming a massive issue. At certain times of year, the sheep are heavily pregnant, and it can cause them to miscarry. We’ve also seen several legs broken and backs broken.

“The majority of the walkers are responsible and abide by the rules, but you get a few that cause problems when they let their dogs off lead when they think there’s no sheep out, but around the next corner and over the next hill, there’s sheep that you haven’t seen.”

Livestock worrying

There were 21 reported cases of livestock worrying to Newry, Mournes and Down District Council (NMDDC) between April 2022 and March 2023.

However, the organisations stressed that these are unlikely to include all the incidents from the High Mournes as historically these have not been reported to the council Dog Warden. 

“Dogs have a natural curiosity, and this means that any dog can cause distress, or worse to livestock or wildlife,” McConnell said. 

“Dog attacks on sheep cause obvious suffering to sheep, but they also have a financial, emotional and time impact on farmers and their families.

“Dogs off lead can also trample and damage fragile plants and flowers, as well as the nests of ground nesting birds leaving eggs exposed to the cold and predators.”

McConnell said the Mournes are home to ten species of ground-nesting birds including the Grouse, Skylark and Wheatear.

“Their well camouflaged nests are at risk from habitat loss and disturbance by people and their dogs.”

Responsible dog owners

Collectively, Mourne farmers, dog trainers, dog owners and conservation organisations, have produced a video with the aim of educating people about the importance of keeping dogs on leads in the Mourne uplands.

The video will be shown at the Castlewellan Show on Saturday, July 13, where some of the team will also be attending to reinforce the message.

Lead ranger at the National Trust, James Fisher, said: “The Mournes is such an important place for so many reasons – it’s a farmed landscape, Northern Ireland’s top recreational hiking area, which is home to rare plants, birds, and Northern Ireland’s only reptile.

“One fifth of our population gets its drinking water from the Mournes and, for many, the view of the majestic mountain range brings much joy and solace.

“The area has always been a popular hiking destination, however since the pandemic, we’ve seen big increases in the number of people visiting.”

Fisher said walking in open spaces has increased fourfold, along with a doubling of dog ownership, and so it is easy to see why walking with dogs off leads in the countryside has become “more problematic”.

“We all need to play our part to help look after the area and the partnership recognises the benefits of walking in the open countryside and the pleasure that owning a family pet can bring, and that’s why the message is simple – keep dogs on lead at all times in the Mourne uplands.”