Alan Tilmouth: who let the dogs in?


I have a dog. He's a scruffy Border Terrier cross called Bubo that hates cats. He will chase after anything that looks interesting, or anything that looks big and slow enough for him to catch. He's particularly fond of Woodpigeons and Common Pheasants when they visit our garden. For the last few years I've mostly kept him on the lead when out, partly because his recall is woeful and partly because it's increasingly apparent – from both personal observation and excellent articles such as that by Alex Lees ('Gone to the dogs', Birdwatch 349: 42-44) – that the disturbance impacts on the birds and wildlife I cherish.

Alex's article is well worth a read. He summarises the issues and ends by offering somehope for change and a call for "dog-owning birders to lead by example at any sites with wildlife value and talk to other dog walkers about impacts". We all know this is easier said than done, of course, and for every two positive responses you're likely to receive eight negative ones currently, but collectively we should still make the effort.

One of the more recent developments in dog-walking is the increase in professional dogwalkers, often with up to half a dozen dogs free-ranging in publicly accessible places such as local nature reserves or local woodland. A quick dive into a number of the professional dog-walking associations finds little by way of codes of conduct or advice about reducing disturbanceto birds and wildlife while doing their work. Repeated daily visits by high footfall numbers of dogs at the same sites will almost certainly reduce the value of those habitats to birds.

Dog-walking has become a hugely popular activity in Britain. But how much is it impacting our wildlife? (Julian Hough).

Coming across a tweet by my local Wildlife Trust towards the end of October, advertising a Halloween dog-walking event on one of the reserves in which owners were encouraged to dress their dogs in Halloween costume and be guided around said reserve, left me with conflicting opinions. Public engagement and education may well have been at the heart of the thinking behind this particular event but I couldn't help wondering if encouraging dog-walking at a nature reserve, albeit one that is already heavily used for this activity, might have unintended consequences.

On the flip side, I continue to be pleasantly surprised and encouraged by our local council's commitment to try and reduce dog-walking disturbance in coastal areas with their 'Space for Shorebirds' programme (@Forshorebirds onTwitter). A small team of rangers is out in the field daily, engaging with the general public (and birders/photographers), working to gradually influence and improve behaviour at key waderand tern roosting and breeding sites here in Northumberland.

Of course, it's easy to say 'ban them' as many do regularly and often vociferously on social media, but the reality is that more nuanced solutions are required. There are complexities involving public footpaths and other legislation, competing visions for the countryside such as the Right to Roam campaign that wish to open up access for people, which almost certainly has the knock-on effect of increasing access for dogs. Some nature reserves are very popular with dog-walkers and it may be that the owners at least find some connection with nature and place some value on those locations and their overall protection as a result.

I suspect there will be a point in the future when conservation organisations can no longer walk the tightrope and will need to make dog-free nature reserves in many areas a reality. But the needs of the dog-walking public can't be ignored and there will need to be some counterbalance with local authorities introducing dedicated, fenced and managed safe dog-walking areas. There are already increasing amounts of private paid-for provision of paddock-like areas for such purposes created by enterprising farmers popping up around the country and this hopefully leads to less dog-related pressure on our birds.


Written by: Alan Tilmouth