A surge in vicious dog attacks on sheep has prompted farmers' pleas for owners to keep their pets under control in the Norfolk countryside.

New national figures from insurers NFU Mutual have revealed farm animals worth an estimated £2.4m were severely injured or killed by dogs in 2023 - up nearly 30pc from the previous year.

The increase is believed to be partly due to a surge in dog ownership during the Covid lockdown.

And with the spring lambing season under way, farmers have urged owners to keep their dogs on leads around livestock.

Fourth-generation farmer Andrew Hudson runs a mixed farm at Smallburgh, near North Walsham - where one sheep was killed and another injured after a dog attack last month.

“We have not had any problems until recently," he said.

“The first time was last summer and just a couple of weeks ago one sheep died and one was injured in an attack.

“I know other farmers have had problems recently. I’ve heard of incidents where up to 20 sheep were attacked.

"It is really awful to see the animals suffering. People just don’t appreciate what their dogs are capable of.

"It also has a financial impact and takes time dealing with it at a very busy time of the year."

Livestock worrying incidents - which include barking, chasing, biting and killing - can cause anxiety, miscarriage and terrible injuries in farm animals, often leading to euthanasia by a vet.

It is a criminal offence and dog owners could be liable for prosecution or a fine.

NFU Mutual’s recent survey found a 4pc increase in people letting their dogs off the lead in the countryside from the previous year.

Last month, the government backed a bill to give police greater powers to tackle livestock worrying.

The bill, brought forward by Suffolk Coastal MP and former Defra secretary Thérèse Coffey, includes measures allowing officers to seize dogs after serious incidents, and to take evidence samples from livestock and dogs to assist investigations.

Charles Hesketh, the National Farmers' Union's (NFU's) regional policy manager for the East of England, said: "These proposals are a positive step.

"No matter how in control dog owners think they are, they should always remain alert and dogs should always be kept on a lead around livestock."