Animal welfare battle breaks out over Moffat Sheep Race

Sheep race down Moffat High Street in Dumfriesshire during the annual Moffat Sheep Races (Andrew Milligan / PA Wire)

IT’S a baaaarmy spectacle that entertains thousands of fans every year.

But an event which sees sheep driven through the streets of a Scots town with toy jockeys on their backs could be for the chop, if animal rights protesters get their way.

Animal lover and campaigner Samantha Francis is launching a petition calling for the Moffat Sheep Race to be scrapped on the grounds it terrifies the animals.

But organisers have hit back at the step, insisting animal welfare is at the top of their list of priorities ahead of every race.

Samantha Francis

Meanwhile locals – especially business owners – have issued a “hands off” warning as the spectacle has proven to be a boon for the market town in terms of the cash it generates and the number of visitors it brings.

“There is something inherently cruel about watching frightened sheep being scared through a town with toys strapped to their back,” said Samantha, from Cambridge.

“It’s hardly what you could call setting a good example in animal welfare.

“The sheep are terrified as they are made to charge through a street with crowds of people shouting from the side.

“Sheep do not race naturally and are not competitive.”

(Andrew Milligan / PA Wire)

This year’s event – which is set to take place on August 13 – is likely to be the biggest yet.

Now in its sixth year, it attracts upwards of 5000 people to the town.

The sheep are supplied by a local farm and the race is started each year by a young, local farmhand. Bets of £1 are placed and the winners of heats take part in a final race.

The idea came from the Channel Island of Sark where sheep racing helps fund the local health service.

Sarah Ottewell, who is chairwoman of the organisers, insists the sheep are treated humanely.

“Extensive animal welfare considerations have been taken into account in the planning and running of this event,” said Sarah.

“We consulted several bodies including the animal charity the SSPCA.

“The reputation of Moffat Sheep Races as a highly organised and professionally-run family friendly event celebrating sheep, shepherding and rural life in the Southern Uplands, is extremely important to all who are involved.

“We adhere to a host of animal welfare, environmental, and licensing requirements.

“We always listen to others’ views though, I must add.”

(Andrew Milligan / PA Wire)

Money raised by the races covers costs and furthers the work done by Moffat Group Promotions which is committed to promoting conservation of Moffat.

Samantha, however, will launch her petition this week.

She has form, too, for putting the kibosh on such events.

She got the organisers of a similar sheep race in Cambridge to scrap their event after a similar, earlier petition attracted support from more than 50,000 people.

But one Moffat local who loves the race and can’t wait for this year’s event was unbowed.

Stuart McBride, 40, who stays on a converted farm near Moffat, said: “I think she’ll have a bit of a fight on her hands, as people round here don’t like being told what to do!”