Dog walkers could be fined for disturbing shorebirds in Northumberland
Research has shown that disturbance by dog walkers is impacting wader populations on the Northumberland coast – and the county council is acting.
However, numbers have been declining in recent years. While climate change has been labelled as a factor, a study by Newcastle University, published in 2020, identified disturbance by walkers and their dogs as another key issue.
Northumberland holds nationally important numbers of Ringed Plover. Disturbance is one factor behind declining numbers (Heiko Peters).
It comes as tourism in Northumberland – particularly in the coastal areas – is increasing rapidly. In response to the issue, Northumberland County Council set up Space for Shorebirds, a project aimed at addressing the impacts of "recreational disturbance to shorebirds", primarily through education and engagement.
Speaking at a meeting of the North Northumberland Local Area Committee, senior wildlife ranger Richard Willis explained why dog walkers are such an issue. He said: "Our populations of rare seabirds are internationally important and receive the highest level of conservation status. However, we've had regional decline of 30% or 40%, while nationally that figure is 50%. There is lots of pressures on these birds.
"Dog walkers can interrupt their daily pattern of behaviour, and the birds spend more energy trying to gather food and gather food less efficiently. Disturbance is playing a really important role in their reduction. Dogs play a big part. Approximately 50% of disturbances involve dogs. The dog doesn't have to chase the birds, because they detect them and see them as predators."
Mr Willis confirmed the team had power to hand out fines but added in the two-and-a-half years since the group was formed, no fixed penalty notices had been issued.
He continued: "We see dog owners as somebody we need to make friends with. We need to show passion for dogs and wildlife, and there's lots of people who share those passions. We do have powers, but we have found it simply has not been necessary.
"If we do see a bird being chased by a dog, we will approach the dog owners and explain about the birds and explain that it is not acceptable in Northumberland. People are really receptive of that. If we got a situation where we're not getting progress, we will instruct people to put their dog on a lead. If they don't do that, we do have powers to issue a fixed penalty notice. We've never had to do that or issue a warning."
Space for Shorebirds advises walkers – and their dogs – to give birds space, around 40-50 m at least. It also asks people to be aware of signage and requests by rangers, which will help to avoid areas where species are nesting.