ONE of the many things I love about Scotland – and a reason why I decided to move back home after 14 years working as a theatre nurse in Los Angeles – is our beautiful countryside. Dumfries and Galloway, the region where I grew up and now serve as a South Scotland MSP, is in my opinion the bonniest region in the country. And across Scotland, just like in the south-west, we have some of the most beautiful countryside walks in the world, whether that’s up the Galloway hills, the Munros or paths around our stunning lochs and woodland.

Enjoying the countryside is an entrenched right in Scotland, but it needs to be done responsibly.

In recent years we have seen a sharp rise in the number of dogs attacking livestock. According to Police Scotland, 338 incidents of livestock attacks were reported to them in 2018 and NFU Mutual revealed last year that the cost of dog attacks on livestock rose by 67% across the UK in the previous two years.

READ MORE: SNP's Emma Harper launches consultation over dog attacks on sheep

Due to these increases and campaigns such as those led by NFU Scotland, National Sheep Association Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime, and The Scottish Farmer and other farming magazines, to highlight this issue, it is my view that now is the time to bring about a change in the law both to protect our Scottish farmers, as well as to improve animal welfare. I support the work that everyone has done to raise awareness of this issue and I will continue to engage with and work with all stakeholders going forward.

While it’s fantastic that more and more people are accessing the countryside and becoming more active, there needs to be a respect that a farmer’s field is his or her place of work – their factory floor – and that letting dogs of any breed run around off lead near livestock can have devastating consequences.

During the summer of 2018, I engaged with many people on this issue, both those involved in farming and those involved with countryside access, as well as the public. During this engagement I encountered a lack of knowledge and understanding of what the term “livestock worrying” means. I found that people assume that sheep are simply just “feart”, as one member of the public said to me.

Every animal chased, attacked or mutilated by a dog represents both an animal welfare issue and a financial loss to the farmer, gamekeeper or agricultural worker. This financial loss can include the loss of potential income if lambs are killed, the loss of breeding stock that, in some cases, will have taken years to build up, as well as the substantial costs of veterinary services or, indeed, disposal of fallen livestock. In addition, it is also a traumatic experience for the agricultural workers involved and their families.

It is also important to stress that even the chasing of a sheep by a dog – without any physical contact – could be so traumatic for the ewe that it aborts the lambs it is carrying.

There is a need to strengthen the maximum penalties available, provide new or extended powers to ban offenders from owning a dog (including indefinitely, subject to periodic review), have powers to enable evidence to be gathered more effectively and have powers to delegate functions to relevant agencies to increase the pool of enforcing officers.

We have, in Scotland, a real opportunity to provide better protection than current legislation affords to our farmers, tenant farmers, crofters, estates and wildlife by strengthening legal obligations to ensure that when enjoying the countryside, people are accessing it responsibly by keeping their dogs under control.

I welcome views from readers of The National on this proposed legislation and hope to work together and engage with all interested parties to help eliminate livestock attacks in Scotland.