Farm diversification: Dog enterprises ‘win-win’ for farmers
With the growth of pet ownership, providing facilities for dogs could be a lucrative farm diversification as well as potentially helping to bring down livestock worrying numbers.
Increasing levels of dog ownership across the UK and an growing amount of money spent on pets has opened up more opportunities for farmers looking to diversify. And it could also help ease the livestock worrying problem, with farmers providing secure fields for dogs to be let off their lead and raising awareness of the need to keep dogs on a lead on farms.
The pandemic led to an increase in dog ownership and skyrocketing puppy prices, with more people working from home or furloughed looking for companionship.
Last year, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association said a total of 3.2 million households in the UK had acquired a pet since the start of the pandemic, with around 12m dogs in the UK. And while there were concerns from welfare charities, changing circumstances could also open opportunities for those offering services such as doggy day care. Providing facilities for dogs, such as secure fields for walking and training, can be a ‘win-win’ for farmers facing livestock worrying concerns.
Dog owners will benefit from having a safe space they can let their dog off the lead safely with farmers benefitting from a new income stream and improved safety for their livestock.
Caroline Harriott, farmer in the South Downs, says livestock worrying is a big concern in the area as they are on the edge of an urban district and many people had become dog owners during lockdown.
“A lot of people do not realise until it is too late that their dog has got an instinct in it. It is in its DNA to hunt and chase. If a sheep runs, it starts out as a game but can end as a horror story,” she says, adding this has a major emotional impact on farmers as well as a financial one.
She says one of the biggest issues is professional dog walkers who can have up to 12 dogs between two people on the lead at any time, leaving them unable to handle the situation if one dog decides to chase the livestock.
“It is very anti-social for the other walkers too. How are you meant to pick up dog poo when you have got that number of dogs? If one of them gets away, how do you handle that,” she says.
And with people still working from home, Ms Harriott questioned how much worse the problem would get if people returned to the office. She suggests more dog walking paddocks may not solve the problem, but they might help to reduce it. Ms Harriott says there is a major industry around dog ownership, from walking paddocks and dog training, to kennels and boarding.
“Why should farmers not gain from people with their dogs on their land? Too often people exercise their dogs on their land anyway and it affects their business. Why should they not set up a compound where they can do it safely?” she says.
Farm diversification case study
After taking part in some dog training herself, Margaret Fitton, Bolton, says she got into dog training almost accidentally. People were asking her about her dog training and she ended up training dogs for free before taking the plunge and turning it into a business.
She says: “Then people would ask me ‘would you look after my dog as I trust you’. I said yes and had quite a few dogs coming to me and decided we needed to either get fully into it or stop. So, I took the direction of investing money in it.”
Ms Fitton farms alongside her son Robert and his wife, Louise, on a tenanted farm, farming 120 acres, with pedigree Simmentals, some pedigree Blue Texels and horse liveries. They also run a milk round for the past 45 years. Several factors influenced their decision to diversify, including lower returns from the farming business and the future reduction of agricultural subsidies.
Following her husband’s death, the family also had to review the business and needed to create a new income stream. Now the farm has a dog barn where the training takes place, a secure dog field which they rent out, and kennels, as well as running a daycare.
Kennels as a farm diversification
The day care uses the same kennels as would be used for boarding, with the dogs playing out two or three times per day, depending on weather. The kennels had been opened 12 months when Covid-19 hit and the UK went into lockdown.
“The kennels were shutdown completely,” says Ms Fitton.
“In a way we are tied into the holiday trade. People go away on holiday and bring their dogs to me. Or all the family are going to a wedding and they leave their dogs. We did not have as good a year at all in 2020.”
But the business has seen some benefit from the move to working from home and the increase in dog ownership.
“There are plenty of dogs,” she says. “We have not got enough kennels here in Bolton. If you are booked in, you are booked in. We do not have any trouble getting customers.”
Ms Fitton agrees it is beneficial for owners who are concerned about letting their dogs off the lead for any reason, including livestock worrying.
“There are a lot of foreign rescue dogs which have got no recall, some aggressive dogs. They need to come be taken somewhere there is nothing to intimidate them.”
Covid-19 has also boosted the milk round but Ms Fitton says they are now seeing many of the new customers go back to the supermarkets. Ms Fitton adds there is money to be made in the sector but farmers considering diversifying need to be willing to work with and handle all kinds of dogs.
“The downside is you have to deal with all the dog poo,” she says.
Location is key, both for attracting customers and for receiving permission to build a kennels.
“You need to consider if you have neighbours nearby who will complain about the noise,” she says. “When we applied for planning we had in our favour that there was previously a kennels just down the lane.”
But she adds it is also vital the farm is not in the middle of nowhere and being in an urban area means they have had lots of customers from the town, needing little advertising as their customers have generally come through word of mouth.
“We live in a very built-up area. It goes against the farming side but is in the favour of the milk round and the dogs side,” she says.