The owners of sheep tragically mauled to death by two dogs who escaped from a nearby kennel last month have said they had seen it coming for several years after dogs repeatedly ran off the property onto their and other neighbouring farms.
Cynthia Robson, whose farm is situated close to Nancy Williamson’s Big Dog Homestay on the Luggate-Tarras Highway, told the Wānaka Sun, “Within the last two years we have taken three dogs to the pound, all of which have escaped from Big Dogs Homestay. Prior to this, we used to return them to Nancy Williamson before realising nothing was ever going to change.”
“We have told both Central Otago District Council (CODC) and Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) dog control staff of the frequency of the dogs escaping, the risk to livestock, and begged them to investigate how the operation was being run,” she said.
QLDC spokesman Jack Barlow confirmed dog control officers had previously impounded three dogs in the care of Big Dog Homestay, and Williamson had reported lost dogs to the council six times before this incident took place. They are currently investigating the incident that took place on March 4, when two dogs which had escaped from the homestay on February 4 were found mauling sheep on Robson’s farm.
A total of 43 sheep have been confirmed dead, and three mauled sheep have been treated and may recover. Ten sheep remain unaccounted for in the block where the dogs were found. Williamson believes they escaped through a hole dug under the fence by the dogs - one of whom has previously trained to become an avalanche dog, although Williamson said she was not made aware of this at the time.
The month-long search for Hank and Wilbur involved both ground and aerial searching by the dog owners, farmers and others before they were caught by their owners on March 5. The owner of one of the dogs, Christine Prebble, from Christchurch, said that after speaking with several farmers during the search, she became increasingly aware of the concern that dogs were escaping “all too often, and they are sick and tired of it.”
Williamson, who has been running the homestay since 2018 - although she only secured resource consent from the CODC just before the dogs went missing in February - said she felt ostracized by the response following the incident.
“The owners of the escapees spoke to many neighbours, a few of whom have been out to get me from day one,” she said.
“They are making the most of this opportunity to shut me down.”
Williamson said that since she had installed deer and rabbit fencing in line with resource consent conditions, dogs had not escaped from their enclosure - but there had still been some escapes. She said she felt that dogs should be able to “run free” and she often took them off-leash down to the river.
“I have a database of over 100 owners who have been able to take holidays because of my homestay,” she said. “One bad episode should not limit the hundreds of happy dogs and owners who choose to leave their dogs in my care. My recent resource consent has highlighted the areas of security that need improving - as always 99 per cent of dogs don’t even try to escape, but like everything in this world, it’s the worst-case scenario that sets the standard for the majority.”
Some of Williamson’s clients have shared support for her methods. Aggi Sanders told the Wānaka Sun that their labrador “loves the freedom there, where she can run around with her mates, chase sticks and balls and go for a swim in the Clutha. We think it's the best set up possible for a kennel.”
But for Robson and others, this is an issue of behaviour, not infrastructure. “No amount of policing or enforcement of resource consent conditions would prevent this as [Williamson] has taken no responsibility for dogs escaping from her care,” she said. “We are deeply concerned that, given [her] history as a dog kennel operator, more dog attacks on local farms and lifestyle blocks are likely unless her resource consent is revoked.”
“We are asking the people of Wānaka who take their dogs there to look into this more closely,” she added.
Investigations are currently being undertaken by CODC, in whose jurisdiction the homestay lies, and QLDC, who cover the farm on which the sheep were attacked.