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Paws for thought when enjoying nature with your dog

Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and Dogs Trust encourage owners to keep their pooches on leads during nesting season from February until August

Staffordshire Wildlife Trust encourages dog owners to consider the importance of keeping their pets on leads during visits to nature reserves and the wider countryside. This will help protect ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, lapwings, meadow pipits and nightjars, as well as other birds such as robins and dunnocks that nest close to the ground. Unsupervised dogs can unintentionally cause harm, so it is vital that they are kept under close control.

Springtime brings with it the arrival of many exciting migratory species of wildlife. Some which have travelled thousands of miles to nest at nature reserves in Staffordshire. Many of these birds nest on or close to the ground, where they're particularly vulnerable. Disturbance from dogs can lead to them abandoning their nests and losing their eggs or chicks. Some bird species are already struggling and disturbance by dogs can make it even harder for them to survive.

Jon Rowe, Land Manager for Staffordshire Wildlife Trusts, says:

“I love exploring wild spaces with my dog. However, as a nature lover and a reserve manager I am aware of the devastation just one dog can have on ground-nesting birds, a pond, livestock, and harm that excess nutrients from dog waste can do to soil. My dog is well behaved, gentle and has brilliant recall, but they are still a dog. Even though I trust them, I always have them on a lead in nature reserves where dogs are allowed, but also more generally in spaces where there might be wildlife. One in three households in the UK now have a dog so the risk of wildlife disturbance and possible damage is at an all-time high.”

Dr Jenna Kiddie, Head of Canine Behaviour at Dogs Trust, says:

“Dogs enrich our lives, but they also bring a level of responsibility. Whilst many of us enjoy taking our dogs for long walks, especially as it becomes a bit warmer, we urge dog owners to consider their surroundings, particularly when visiting areas where they might encounter wildlife. When visiting rural areas, owners should keep their dogs under control and ensure they do not worry other animals or stray from the path, as well as dispose of their dog's waste appropriately. We would advise keeping your dog on a short lead, and close to you, especially whenever livestock are nearby. It is important to remember that chasing is normal dog behaviour, and that any dog is capable of chasing, irrelevant of breed, type, age or size.”

Clare Webb, Countryside Code Project Manager at Natural England is supportive of The Wildlife Trusts’ initiative. She says:

“The Countryside Code helps us all respect, protect and enjoy our outdoor spaces. Many of us enjoy nothing better than a walk with our dogs in the fresh air and the Countryside Code sets out how we can do this responsibly by keeping dogs on a lead, checking local signs, respecting livestock and those who work in rural areas.”

Many dog owners are passionate about nature and want to avoid harming it. However, even the most well-behaved dogs can unintentionally cause distress or damage wildlife, simply by following their natural curiosity. Birds perceive dogs as predators; when dogs roam freely, birds may abandon their nests, leaving eggs and chicks cold and unprotected. From designated walking paths to understanding wildlife seasons, there's plenty we can do to ensure everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience – on two legs or four.

Our top canine questions answered:

My dog is well-behaved, has a great recall and gets on with other animals; why do I still need to be careful on nature reserves?

Keeping your dog close on a short lead helps to minimise distress and disturbance caused to wildlife. If your dog is off the lead and out of sight it may well be causing disturbance to wildlife, which can cause a reduction in breeding success and ultimately a decrease in population numbers. Wildlife Trusts welcome a wide variety of visitors to their nature reserves, from wildlife enthusiasts to school groups. It’s important to be aware that dogs can scare other users even unintentionally.

How do I know whether to keep my dog on a lead in a nature reserve?

Many Wildlife Trust nature reserves welcome dogs with responsible owners and have clear signage stating where a dog needs to be on a lead. There are also some nature reserves where Trusts kindly ask visitors not to bring their dogs. This is usually because the wildlife on site is extremely fragile. Check each Wildlife Trust’s website before heading to a reserve to find information about how to balance walkies while ensuring wildlife is protected. They will let you know where you can and can’t take your pooch.

What do I need to think about when taking my dog on a walk around a nature reserve?

It’s best to keep your dog under control and in sight at all times when exploring wild places. Please consider wildlife around you and other users. Remember to pick up all dog waste and dispose of it in appropriate bins or take it away with you. Dog poo adds excess nutrients to the soil that can have a major effect on the type of plants that can grow there.

Why can't my dog enter ponds, rivers or other water bodies?

Please do not encourage your dog to swim in ponds, rivers or other water bodies. These areas are home to wildlife that your dog can disturb and there is also a risk of your pet getting injured. Dogs may also pollute waterbodies with chemicals used in flea treatments – these can be extremely harmful to aquatic life.

There's so much space on the beach/sea front I visit on holiday, where does my dog have to be on a lead?

Beaches can be home to ground-nesting birds such as terns and ringed plover as well as other marine wildlife – so look out for signage which indicates areas where dogs are best to be kept on a lead. The birds that nest on beaches are often very well camouflaged to hide from predators whilst sitting on their eggs. This makes them very difficult for people to spot, so you might not even know they're there. But they're still sensitive to disturbance. When a dog gets too close, they are likely to leave the nest, making the eggs or chicks more vulnerable.

I have a guide-dog – can you advise on how accessible your nature reserves are?

It’s best to check the reserve’s website for up-to-date information about accessibility and each site’s particular requirements before you set off to visit; signs on-site will also tell you about any restrictions. If you see someone else with an assistance dog, please remember they are not pets and are highly trained which means they will not wander freely around a reserve, will remain with their owner at all times and are unlikely to foul in a public place.

How can I give my dog the exercise it needs and run around outdoors?

There are lots of great ways for your dog to exercise and stretch their legs safely whilst in the wild including designated areas of some nature reserves or wild places. There are also a growing number of canicross events nationwide, which exercise your dog on a lead whilst you run or jog.

Can I still walk my dog on nature reserves where there are grazing animals?

Responsible dog owners and their dogs are welcome on some nature reserves, though there are some areas where dogs must remain on leads or cannot be permitted due to the delicate nature of some of the habitats the Wildlife Trusts are working to conserve. Please take extra care when walking your dog near grazing livestock, keep them on a short lead and heed the warning signs on the nature reserves – they are there to protect you, other visitors, your dog and other animals. Please clear up after your dog as dog poo can cause illnesses in livestock, as well as to people and wildlife.

Why do nature reserves allow visitors with dogs when there is so little space left for wildlife?

Saving the UK’s wildlife and wild places and helping them to recover from past losses and damage has been a central aim of The Wildlife Trusts throughout their history. For more than a century, we have been saving, protecting and standing up for wildlife and wild places. To achieve this we believe that connecting people with nature is vital and we recognise that for many dog-owners this connection can be established whilst exercising their dog.


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