Dog walkers must 'lead the way' to save ground-nesting birds


The celebrated song of Eurasian Skylark and bubbling call of Eurasian Curlew are evocative and welcome sounds of spring, as people explore our wonderful countryside and urban commons again. Birds like these – whose numbers are in worrying decline – are currently making their fragile nests on the ground, tucked away in long grass.

However, too often, an exuberant or inquisitive dog, wandering or bounding through grass or heather, easily disturbs wildlife and scares adult birds off nests or tramples eggs. And vulnerable chicks can quickly perish if they are left alone for too long.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling on dog-walkers to keep their dogs on short leads to help protect ground-nesting birds this spring and summer. Whether you're visiting moorland, fields, urban parks or the beach, there are birds nesting on the ground – or just above it – that can be hard to see and are at risk of trampling, disturbance and harm.

James Brittain-McVey, lead guitarist of The Vamps, dog-owner and ambassador for The Wildlife Trusts said: "I've learnt, as a rescue-dog owner, the importance of keeping your dog under control at all times. And at this time of year, it's especially important to remember that we can all play our part in helping birds breed successfully by keeping dogs on short leads in wild places – especially when so many species are having such a hard time."

Kirstie and James Brittain-McVey with their dog Moochie (Wildlife Trusts).

James Byrne, landscapes recovery programme manager for The Wildlife Trusts, added: "Allowing dogs to run wild in nature reserves can be devastating for wildlife, particularly in spring when species are breeding and vulnerable. We're asking dog-walkers to be sensitive by keeping their animals on short leads, sticking to paths, and properly disposing of dog poo. Wildlife is already under enormous pressure – let's all keep dogs in check so as not to make things worse."

Many people think of birds' nests as being high up in trees, but a surprising number nest on the ground or just above it, in low bushes. For example, European Nightjars lay their eggs on the ground on heathland, Willow Warblers nest at the base of trees and bushes, and familiar garden birds such as Blackbird can nest close to the ground. Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover and Little Tern eggs and young are brilliantly camouflaged on beaches among pebbles and sand, making them easy to disturb.

European Nightjar is vulnerable to disturbance from dogs walked off-lead on heaths (Wildlife Trusts).

Some beaches have cordoned-off areas to protect some of the rarest birds' nests – but it's best to keep dogs on leads on all beaches and the wider countryside until chicks have fledged in September.

Keeping dogs on short leads will benefit other wildlife that can be harmed or disturbed by enthusiastic dogs – from snakes and seals to amphibians and amammals. Dogs disturbed seals at Cumbria Wildlife Trust's South Walney nature reserve earlier this year and there are fears that seal numbers are down as a result. Other Wildlife Trusts have experienced problems with dogs chasing grazing livestock. Recently, several sheep were attacked at a nature reserve looked after by Gwent Wildlife Trust in South Wales.

The law says that you must keep your dog on a lead no longer than 2 m between 1 March and 31 July, when on any open-access land to protect ground-nesting birds. For safety, you should also always keep your dog a lead around grazing animals, although it's safer to let your dog off if you are chased by cows or horses.

Other benefits of keeping dogs on leads include lessening the impact of dog waste, preventing dogs disturbing aquatic life and reducing risks to other animals and people.

Local Wildlife Trusts ask dog-walkers to avoid some of their nature reserves because the wildlife there is too rare or fragile and needs special protection. It's always worth a look at individual nature reserve websites before you leave home to see if dogs are allowed.