Dogs and Wildlife – Building a ‘Pawsitive’ Relationship

August 30, 2021

The UK is a nation of dog lovers, with an estimated 12 million pups in UK homes and a large increase in dog ownership since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also a nation of wildlife lovers, with the RSPB alone having over 1.1 million members, and many choosing to visit nature reserves and local wildlife sites in their free time. The two are by no means mutually exclusive, and dog ownership is a fantastic way to stay active, get outside, and appreciate the natural world. The RSPB encourages responsible dog walking on its nature reserves, and in the wider countryside, but what does this mean for dog owners, and why is it necessary around our wildlife? 

What is responsible dog walking?

Responsible dog walking means: 

  • Keeping your dogs close or preferably on a lead in sensitive areas. 
  • Sticking to designated paths to avoid disturbing wildlife or livestock.
  • Researching ahead of your trip to locate dog-friendly or restricted-access areas. 
  • Approaching wardens for a friendly chat if you have any questions or concerns. 
  • Reading and respecting signs in sensitive areas. 

Why is this necessary? 

Dog owners are often passionate advocates for the environment and possess a wealth of knowledge about the wildlife on their local patches where they regularly go for walks. Sadly though, there are times when dogs can cause major disturbances by chasing or attacking wildlife. 

Earlier this year, a ten-month old seal pup well known by locals and nicknamed ‘Freddie’, was basking along the Thames in west London when it was attacked by a dog off its lead. It was rescued by a South Essex wildlife hospital, but tragically its injuries were so severe it had to be humanely put down. The owner was heartbroken and regretted that the dog had not been on a lead but had not thought it was necessary at the time. 

If you are unsure as to how your dog will react around wildlife, especially if they are young or untrained, it is always better to be sure and put it on a lead. This kind of interaction is an extreme example, but this is not the only way in which dogs can negatively impact on wildlife. A far greater problem is that of disturbance

What is disturbance?

For much of our wildlife, humans and dogs are seen as predators, and so they will behave as such when we approach. This is a big problem for ground-nesting birds, who do not feel the safety of being up in a tree or bush. Birds that nest on the ground include our beach-nesting birds, such as little terns and ringed plovers, as well as curlews, lapwings, and oystercatchers. 

When predators, dogs, or people approach, these birds will leave their nests, trying to distance themselves from their eggs or chicks. They might try to lead the threat in another direction, or mob the intruder along with other nesting birds until it leaves the area. These disturbances mean that eggs and chicks are left unattended, making them vulnerable to predation, to thermal stress from being too cold or too hot, or to being crushed as they are very hard to spot. 

Constant disturbance can also use up the energy reserves of the adults, who are working hard to incubate their eggs and feed themselves - as well as their chicks after they hatch. Eventually if there is too much disturbance the birds abandon their nests, and although they may try again, if this is too late in the breeding season a second attempt may often be unsuccessful. Disturbance can also be an issue outside of the breeding season, as birds roosting along the shoreline in the winter are often resting and reserving their precious energy reserves. 

For beach-nesting birds who must share their space with regular beach users as well as the huge influx of people and their dogs on weekends and holidays, this can often be too much. Along with other threats such as predation alongside inundation from high tides and severe storms, increasing disturbance at nesting sites is pushing these species to their limits, with many shorebirds facing declines around the world. 

Dog owners can make a huge difference to the fate of these birds, as recent research by Professor Miguel Angel Gómez-Serrano from the University of Valencia on Kentish plovers suggests that lone, wandering dogs off their leads disturb birds from their nests almost 100% of the time, more than if they were accompanied by their owner and much more than by someone without a dog. This research also showed that sticking to paths and complying with fencing and buffer zones around colonies reduced the amount of disturbance for beach nesting birds. 

Leading the way forward 

There is plenty of room for both dog walkers and wildlife, and simple measures such as keeping dogs under control or on leads in certain areas can have a real impact on the fate of many of our bird species. This is only done in certain places or times of the year when it is necessary, and there will usually be signs or wardens on hand to let dog owners know. 

Space for Shorebirds is a project run by the Northumberland County Council, and one of its main objectives is to reduce the impact of human recreation on bird populations. Part of this involves fostering positive relationships with dog walkers and asks owners to get their dogs to take the Dog Ranger pledge. They share owners’ dogs on social media with the hashtag #dogranger and get them to spread the message about shorebird conservation. Another example is Bird Aware Essex Coast, which aims to raise awareness about coastal birds whilst preventing human disturbance. 

With fantastic schemes such as this, we can all work together to ensure a bright future for shorebirds where we can peacefully co-exist alongside each other. 

This article was originally featured on the Life on the Edge website for the RSPB.

1 comment

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