From scaring endangered birds on their nests to the mountains of excrement they produce each day, dogs with irresponsible owners are a growing problem in UK nature reserves, say conservationists, who are urging owners to keep their pets on a short lead.
The Wildlife Trusts, which operate more than 2,300 nature reserves across the country, say loose dogs are a leading cause of plant and animal disturbances in the UK reserves and their waste carries diseases for wildlife, with growing evidence that the 3,000 tonnes of faeces and urine produced by dogs each day disturbing the balance of ecosystems at levels that would be illegal on farmland.
Owners of the UK’s 13 million dogs are being encouraged to stick to paths and avoid walking groups of dogs in nature reserves this spring and summer to protect wildlife during the breeding season. They are also being asked to clean up waste and, where possible, stop dogs jumping in ponds.
Attacks on livestock are a persistent problem in nature reserves, sometimes resulting in the death of cows, sheep and other animals that might be maintaining grassland ecosystems.
People are also being reminded that dogs must be on leads no longer than 2 meters between 1 March and 31 July on open access land to protect ground-nesting birds, such as nightjars, willow warblers and meadow pipits. Oystercatchers, ringed plovers and little terns nest on beaches and are also easy to disturb. If a dog is seen worrying livestock, the landowner can legally kill the dog.
Dozens of cases across the country of wildlife and livestock being damaged by dogs have been documented by the Wildlife Trusts. In Little Woolden Moss, Salford, dogs chase away curlews, lapwings and little ringed plovers, sometimes killing chicks in their nests. In Kent, there were at least eight dog attacks on Wildlife Trust staff and livestock, with 13 sheep killed. Dogs jumping in ponds can disturb wildlife, while their flea treatments pollute and poison ponds and other waterways.
“Dogs are not the problem – it is the owners that are the problem,” said Duncan Hutt, Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s director of conservation, who has a cocker spaniel. “Whether it is through lack of knowledge or lack of care, their dogs come first before anything else, including wildlife.”
Becky Austin, nature reserves assistant at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and a former dog owner, said there had been an increase in dog ownership since the pandemic and that while they wanted people to enjoy their reserves, their pets needed to be kept under control.
“There’s a lot of activity happening away from paths. People don’t have sight of their dogs, which causes problems for wildlife and other people who are visiting with children or those who might be nervous of dogs,” she said.
“Owners often say ‘they never catch or hurt anything’ but the main issue is the stress of a predator moving through a landscape. The perception is that if your dog isn’t bringing something dead back or attacking something it’s fine.”
At Holkham national nature reserve in Norfolk, one of the UK’s most important bird habitat sites, there are restrictions on dog walkers for part of the year to help protect wildlife. But Jake Fiennes, conservation manager on the estate and owner of a cocker spaniel, said he did not support a ban on dog walkers in nature reserves.
“I’m a dog owner. I fully understand the importance of where I take them at particular times of the year and I do not take them, knowing the impacts that they cause. We’re trying to improve people’s understanding of the impacts of irresponsible dog ownership,” he said.
“I politely asked a woman who was exercising four dogs to vacate an area that wasn’t public access the other day. She was a professional dog walker in the middle of some sensitive parts of the reserve. That really frustrates me because that’s down to poor education,” said Fiennes.