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Dogs and Wildlife

Dogs and wildlife

Many of us who enjoy wildlife and the natural world also own dogs. Indeed, for many people, dogs and wildlife are extremely compatible. Some owners, though, may not understand the impact these beloved pets have on wildlife, livestock and the countryside. As a result, there have been a growing number of stories in the press centring on conflict between dog walkers and birdwatchers or nature reserve staff in recent years. Reserve managers increasingly report dogs disturbing breeding birds, chasing and killing livestock or damaging habitats. So, where does this conflict come from and how do dogs impact wildlife? And how can the dog owners among us ensure we are not inadvertently harming wildlife or the environment when we take our pets out?

Dogs and the Breeding Season

A major concern is the impact dogs off leads can have during the breeding season. Although the vast majority of dogs do not directly kill the birds and animals they encounter when out and about, their presence alone causes considerable disturbance, in particular when not on a lead. All nesting birds are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). But ground nesting birds are especially sensitive to disturbance during the breeding season. A large number of species nest at ground level in the UK, including skylarks, meadow pipits, ringed plovers and little terns.

Ringed plover
Ringed plovers are just one of many ground nesting birds in the UK

The problems arise when dogs run off the lead into places where these birds nest. Any dogs moving into breeding areas risk displacing birds from the nest. While humans entering such areas also cause disturbance, research shows that many breeding birds react much more strongly to dogs. This includes a 2007 study centring on stone curlews, one of our rarest breeding birds. If this happens repeatedly, eggs or chicks may be left for too long and become too cold and die. They may even be abandoned entirely if the disturbance is consistent. Leaving eggs and chicks alone for longer periods also makes them much more vulnerable to predation. And there is also a risk that a running dog might trample unattended eggs or chicks.

Stone curlew
Stone curlews are one of our rarest breeding birds

Winter Waders and Wildfowl

Impacts aren’t just confined to the breeding season, however. As an island nation with a long coastline, the UK is internationally important for wintering waders and wildfowl. Some of our estuaries, including the Wash in East Anglia and the Exe Estuary in Devon, provide feeding habitat for millions of birds each year. Birds such as knot, sanderling, dunlin, wigeon and brent goose travel hundreds of miles each autumn to spend the winter feeding on our beaches, saltmarshes and mudflats.

Dogs on beaches dogs and wildlife
Dogs can disturb feeding birds in the winter as well as breeding birds in summer

As soon as they arrive, they need to replenish much-depleted energy reserves. And feeding is even more important in the spring before they leave. Not only do they need calories to fuel their return flight north, but they also need to be in top condition to breed when they get there. Dogs on beaches and estuaries, though, severely impede their ability to feed. By causing birds to take flight more often, they also force them to use up what energy they have managed to take on board. Continual disturbance can lead to birds abandoning a prime feeding location completely. They may then have to use suboptimal sites instead. In extreme cases, dogs do chase and kill birds, as well.

Wirral waders
Wintering waders are easily disturbed while feeding

Increased Conflict

Part of the reason that dog disturbance incidents are becoming more prevalent is almost certainly down to increased levels of dog ownership. Figures from a PDSA survey carried out in 2022 show that there are now 10.2 million dogs in the UK compared to 8.3 million in 2011. Many of these were bought since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 as people spent more time at home in lockdown. Some of those who bought pets during lockdown are new dog owners with no previous experience. In fact, the same survey found that 36% of all pet owners (not just dog owners) who responded said this was their first pet ever or at least since childhood. This increases the likelihood of some not understanding the responsibilities involved in taking their dog into the countryside.

Dog and cat dogs and wildlife
Many people got pets for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic

Why more incidences of dog disturbance seem to be resulting in aggressive clashes between owners and other countryside users or reserve staff is harder to pin down. Certainly, many dog walkers simply don’t realise the effect of their dog on wildlife and are happy to change their behaviour once this is pointed out to them. But an increasing number have been reported as acting aggressively when stopped. Some refuse to put their dogs on a lead or to leave a restricted area when challenged. This has led to some conservation bodies tightening the restrictions on dog walking on their reserves. Somerset Wildlife Trust was forced to ban dogs from two of their Avalon Marshes reserves (barring public rights of way) in August 2022 for this very reason.

Dogs and the Countryside

It should also be remembered that dogs can have a significant impact on livestock. They can and do kill farmed animals, either directly or by chasing them to the point of exhaustion and death. As such, farmers are entitled by law to destroy a dog that injures or kills one of their animals.

Young cows
Dogs can also chase and harm livestock

To minimise the risk of disturbance and damage to wild and domestic animals and birds, all dog owners can follow some simple steps when out and about with their pets. The law also covers dog control at certain times of year or in certain places.

  • By law, between 1st March and 31st July dogs must be kept on a short lead of no more than 2 metres when on open access land. This protects ground-nesting birds and livestock from disturbance.
  • The law also requires dogs to be under effective control at all times when in the coastal margin.
  • Always keep your dog on a lead on nature reserves to limit disturbance.
  • Keep your dog under control in suitable nesting habitat during the breeding season and on any beaches clearly being used by wintering birds.
  • Always obey any signage restricting access to sensitive areas such as beaches used for breeding or feeding. Be aware that many beaches also ban dogs at certain times of year to avoid conflict with other recreational users such as sunbathers etc.
Skylark Area Ashton Court dogs and wildlife
Ashton Court in Bristol has a dog exclusion zone to protect breeding skylarks
  • Always pick up your dog’s poo and put in a bin or take it home. Dog faeces can carry diseases and leaving bagged poo is even worse as it leaves the poo and harmful plastic as well.

Owning a dog doesn’t have to be at odds with loving wildlife and the countryside. But owning a dog comes with certain responsibilities if we are to protect nature and prevent disturbance. By increasing awareness of the impacts our pets have on wildlife and changing behaviour accordingly, we can hopefully make space in the countryside for all.

waders in flight
Waders disturbed from feeding on a UK beach