Are dogs killing our cows and sheep?

Devon cows looking out at us

If you are picturing a slavering Baskervilles beast bearing down at full pelt on a panicked and scattering herd……..well it’s not quite like that.

It’s not their teeth or jaws or paws; it’s their poo.

Good dog owners pick up their dog’s poo as a public courtesy – plus it is actually the law too of course. That’s so we don’t step in it, sit on it, get it in the wheels of prams and bikes, or worse yet, in our eyes. Thank you, it’s appreciated!

But what about in farmer’s fields, that’s okay isn’t it?
The rain washes it away, you can just flick it into the hedge can’t you?

Neospora is the leading cause of abortion in cows in the UK.

It is a protozoan parasite passed between dogs and cattle.

Other animals can be infected too and so help to spread it around, but Dogs are the definitive host – which means that the parasite reaches adult maturity in them. Dogs get it if they eat infected meat or placentas around the farm. Eggs are then shed in their poo. So if a dog runs off the lead in a field or near a farm that raises the chance that it may get Neospora by eating something without the owner noticing.

The eggs stay active for up to 6 months – long after the poo has washed away.
If cows eat the eggs then the infection can cause abortions, reduced milk yields and impaired growth rates.
Mothers then pass on the infection to their calves – the herd is now infected.
There’s no effective treatment.

One estimate of the cost to the average herd is £3000/year.

Neospora warning sign


I spoke with Selworthy Vets – the ones on the way to Kingsbridge. They see abortions due to Neospora in herds at least 2-3 times a year. They say there are also miscarriages in sheep (Neospora can effect them too), but think that many of these remain unreported and undiagnosed.

I thought I’d also ask some of our local farmers about it:

Jim Wallis – Dairy:

“Yeah we have regular cases of it!! Half a dozen a year roughly – the cow aborts the calf before full term, and then 9 times out of ten is left infertile after, or will never carry a full term calf again!! Most frustrating disease I deal with as it’s just down to lack of respect from people not picking up their dog’s poo.”


Sue Fildes – Beef:

“Yes A friend of mine lost half her herd to it, she had to cull all the relatives as it passes down the female line. When 20 of her cows tested positive she lost 45 females – all the female offspring of the positive cows had to be sent as beef rather than retained for breeding.”


Sheep on Devon hillside

It’s not just Neospora – there’s also Tapeworm.


Again the eggs are shed in the infected dog’s poo – which can then be eaten by sheep.

Tapeworms aren’t good for the sheep of course and can make them ill or kill them, but perhaps most significantly tapeworm cysts form in the sheep’s tissues. If there are too many then the sheep is rejected at the slaughterhouse. Which means that a year’s work has been wasted.


John Tucker – sheep:

“It’s happened three or four times to us, last time a couple of sheep died……that’s 12 month’s work lost. When dogs poo on grass, if they haven’t treated for tapeworm then they can pass them to the sheep which can kill them, or if they get to the slaughterhouse they are condemned.”


I didn’t know about any of this before I started writing this, did you?

So how can we help?

If you are a dog owner then:

• Keep your dog on a lead in fields and on farms.
• Clean up after your dog on walks, wherever you are.
• Don’t let them eat things they find in fields.
• Make sure they are treated for worms.

You can also tell dog owner friends about this. They are good people and they might not even know about this, I didn’t.

Just like you and me they would never deliberately harm cows, sheep, or a farmer’s livelihood.


Dog poo: Bag it, bin it

Going up in Smoke

Smoky bonfire in Dittisham

Please don’t have bonfires that will impact your neighbours.

? Remember that this could create additional problems for people dealing with breathing difficulties. 

? Bonfires come with additional risks, which could put extra pressure on our emergency services. 

? Green waste smokes, if residents must burn please only burn dry garden waste.

? If residents must burn then move the pile before doing so as there may be animals such as hedgehogs sheltering.  

? The creation of a habitat pile is an alternative, as is chipping.

? If bonfire smoke creates a nuisance this can be reported to South Ham District Council.

What’s smoke anyway?

The smoke you see from a garden bonfire is billions of little particles of un-burnt material. There will also be other harmful compounds released by a bonfire like this including high levels of dioxins. An open fire will typically produce 90% more particulate emissions (smoke) than a new wood burning stove. A garden bonfire, burning wet fuel, is off the scale in comparison.

The reasons are twofold; for an efficient fire you need a high temperature and you need oxygen. Wet fuel does not allow the temperature in the fire to rise because all the heat is being used to evaporate the water, and when you burn fuel in a pile on the ground air does not get mixed in properly, so the combustion is incomplete – it is an “air-starved” way of burning things. Which is why you get billowing clouds of smoke from bonfires when burning fresh garden waste. 

Billowing clouds of smoke is harmful at the best of times, and the pandemic has meant that many of are more aware of how air quality can effect our health.   


If I can’t burn it, what should I do with it?

  • Take it to the Council recycling centre near Kingsbridge – we all collectively pay for recycling services so that, for example, we do not have to end up burning garden waste. Make use of them, they are open.
  • Use your brown bin.
  • Create habitat from the waste – hedgehogs and many other animals love a place of refuge so another option is to make a deliberate habitat pile in your garden and see what new life that attracts. A very tidy garden is not a rich bio-diverse habitat. Here are some pointers from the RHS. There are also some good articles in the Parish magazine from “The Untidy Gardener”.
  • Use a chipper for more bulky material and then use it as a mulch or compost it.
  • If a contractor is doing the work for you then they must dispose of it in the proper manner – which would mean leaving it on site either as-is or chipped, or paying to dispose of it in the proper manner – not burning it. Commercial garden waste must not be burnt.  
  • If you decide you must burn it then make sure it is dry – which means stacking it so that the air and sun can get to it with some type of cover to keep the rain off. Drying can take months so bear that in mind. Also bear in mind that a bonfire pile is an excellent habitat for many animals like hedgehogs so at the very least once, it’s dry, move it just before you burn it so you don’t also burn any animals inside. But do try to avoid burning it in the first place.


What if bonfires are causing a nuisance?

Talking first is often the best approach. If you notice a neighbour having one of these bonfires go and have a word with them. Or send them a letter or phone them if you have their number.

The person having these bonfires may well not be aware of the level of concern and harm they are causing, nor how many people they are effecting. This more personal approach may also have a more lasting impact than a letter from the authorities, plus these bonfires tend to be intermittent so it can tend to be hard for an officer to come out when one is actually happening, especially when Council services are under particular strain at the moment.

If you also talk with other residents about this then that can help to spread awareness and a few more people getting in touch is more powerful than just one. Remember – the person doing this may well not be fully aware of the impact they are having. 

If that fails you can contact Environmental Health at South Hams District Council. They also reiterate the message that you should try talking with the person causing the nuisance first.

Here is a handy Bonfire Guide – again the Environment Agency advocate talking with the person having the bonfires first. There is also some good information in there on best practice.

Smoky bonfire