In November last year, the nation was captivated by the plight and rescue of Fiona, dubbed ‘Britain’s loneliest sheep’.

The three-year-old ewe had been trapped along the shoreline of the Moray Firth for some time, despite having been spotted by a kayaker in 2021. In her years of solitude, she had become overweight from the ample grazing available but appeared otherwise unharmed. Fiona was hauled to safety on November 3 and rehomed to Dalscone Farm Fun in Dumfries.

Incidents of stray livestock entering third-party land is not rare. In 2017, it was estimated that straying sheep caused £250,000 of damage to young trees in Scotland’s national forests. When livestock escapes, obligations are placed on both the livestock owners and the proprietors of the lands they enter.

Escaped livestock remain the property of their owner. Under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, any landowner of land that stray stock may have wandered on to are under an obligation to hold and take reasonable care of the livestock. They also must either notify or deliver them back to the rightful owner, if they are known to them. In cases that they are not known, the landowner must immediately notify the local constabulary. The landowner may cull such animals for the protection of themselves, another person, or their own livestock. They must, however, notify their local police station within 48 hours of the incident taking place.

The police must hold and care for the animals as they make suitable inquiries to establish the livestock’s owner. If they can identify the owner, they must notify them as to where they can collect the livestock. It is in the power of the Chief Constable to order the rightful owner to pay a sum they determine to represent a suitable reward to any finder of the animals. If it is not possible to identify the owner, the police may, after two months, dispose of the livestock as they see fit. Such options include offering the animals to the finder or selling them to a third party. In incidences where it proves too difficult for a finder or the police to gain control of the stray stock, the Chief Constable may dispose of the livestock. Such options can include humane culling.

The final factor to consider is that of liability for any injury or damage caused by straying livestock. Animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs etc are not normally considered dangerous under the Animals (Scotland) Act 1987. This means that strict liability will not usually apply to cases where injury is sustained by livestock. The key test is whether the animal or animals in question, given their nature and situation they are found in, are ‘likely’ to cause injury or damage. The presence of a bull, for example, without adequate signage and enclosure, would likely satisfy this test.

In incidents where livestock escape their enclosures, the ‘keeper’ of the animal will remain responsible for their actions. The ‘keeper’ means the individual who at the time the animal escaped, was the rightful owner or possessor of the animal. With regards to damage caused to property, livestock are considered to satisfy the ‘likely’ test if they are allowed to forage without adequate control or restraint.

Escaping livestock can cause great difficulty to all parties involved. While such incidents of escaped animals are common, the understanding of the law is not. It is essential to understand the various obligations placed on each party in such situations. The bottom line is that livestock owners’ liability does not end at the fence line their sheep have jumped over. For other parties, their obligations are only just beginning at the fence line.

As for Fiona, she has settled well into her ‘forever’ home, which isn’t always the case when animals stray from their usual surroundings.