THE latest edition of the Barningham Local History Group’s award-winning newsletter contains a great story about how the 1906 Dogs Act brought chaos to Greta Bridge magistrates court.

Among other things, the Act was designed to reduce the number of dogs which were allowed to worry cattle by their owners, and so it introduced the dog licence at 7s 6d per dog (about £30 today).

However, farmers were exempt from having to have a licence.

But although the Act defined what animals should not be worried – “in this Act the expression “cattle” includes horses, mules, asses, sheep, goats, and swine”, it said – it did not define what it meant by a “farmer” (it also didn’t define what a “dog” was).

Consequently, everyone who lived in the countryside around Greta Bridge regarded themselves as a “farmer” – although the local constabulary thought otherwise and queried nearly everybody’s right to claim an exemption.

Therefore, in January 1907, when the Act came into force, Greta Bridge court was besieged by more than 200 “farmers” demanding exemptions.

The “farmers” had taken legal advice which said anyone who kept an animal, even if they did not farm full-time or even if they did not own any land, might consider themselves a “farmer”.

Then there was the argument about whether a dog was a farm dog or just a pet. For instance, whereas a sheep farmer could justly claim he needed his hound, could a pig farmer? And what about the farmer’s daughter who had a puppy – was that a pet that needed a licence? And, if a puppy were exempt for being underage, at what age did it become a dog and require a licence? The Act didn’t say, and so there was chaos.

“In one day alone in February 1907, the magistrates tried to deal with 30 applications, including several from shepherds wondering if they counted as farmers, four from farmers with more than one dog and asking how many exemptions they didn’t need, and one from a man with a one-legged wife wondering if she qualified when she went to feed his sheep,” writes editor Jon Smith in Archive 58.

By March 1907, the magistrates had granted 430 exemptions for 630 dogs, and there was still a backlog of cases to be heard.

Eventually, Parliament got the message across to police forces to stop querying the eligibility of a “farmer” unless there were very good grounds on which to bother the courts.