Many members of the public are now at least vaguely aware of the impact that more than 10 million domestic cats are having on UK wildlife and as a result there is a slow but growing acceptance that restricting cats’ interactions with wild animals is necessary in order to to temper their predatory habits.
However, the impact of the dog walk on wildlife has received significantly less media attention. Walking a dog is one of the most popular pastimes in the world, with many associated benefits for humans and their companion canine friends. Dog walking is often the main motivation for many people visiting natural or semi-natural areas and thereby connecting with nature, which in turn can encourage pro-environmental behaviour. However, it appears that most dog walkers are unaware of the problem and, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, perceive dog walking as having significantly less impact on natural areas than other activities (see for example Sterl et al 2008).
Ground-nesting birds like these little terns on a Norfolk beach are particularly sensitive to disturbance; Keeping dogs on a leash can be critical to colony survival (Robin Chittenden).
No harm done?
This discrepancy between perceived and actual harm is perhaps largely due to the fact that such impacts are typically what ecologists refer to as “sublethal”: wildlife is harmed in some way, but not immediately fatal in most cases. Although some dogs sometimes kill wildlife (and livestock), such opportunities are far more limited compared to cats’ predatory activities. However, ecological science is increasingly catching up with quantifying the impact on dogs – something that many reserve managers and bird watchers have recognized for decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased conflict between dogs and wildlife. A pet ownership boom has seen Britain’s dog population grow from 10 to 12 million in a single year – and this at a time of unprecedented visitor pressure on ‘green’ and ‘blue’ spaces. Here I will examine the effects that “own” rather than “feral” dogs can have on wildlife and suggest measures to mitigate their effects.
The response of birds and other wildlife to a threatening stimulus, such as B. humans, dogs or natural predators is called a “disorder” and results in a change in their normal activities towards so-called “antipredator behaviors” such as. B. Freeze, Escape, or Hidden. This leads to the cessation of important activities such as foraging, feeding young or resting and is accompanied by physiological changes such as the release of stress hormones and altered heart rate.
These behaviors come at a price, and while they may not be lethal, repeated disturbances effectively reduce a habitat’s ‘quality’ and can lead to site abandonment, leading to the impoverishment of local biodiversity. Dogs are a year-round disruptive factor at many wildlife sites that can lead to a reduction in local biodiversity.
While many canine interactions with wildlife are labeled “sublethal,” dogs sometimes kill wildlife. This Black Guillemot didn’t stand a chance (Harvey van Diek / www.agami.nl).
In the valley
I do most of my birding in the Longdendale Valley, an area that dipped into ornithology in the summer of 2020 when a famous Bearded Vulture stayed with us for a month and a half and even made it onto my gardening list. The Longdendale chain of reservoirs is generally barren of waterfowl, but daily reporting occasionally shows the odd distraught-looking lost duck or wading bird, especially when the water is low enough to reveal shorelines.
However, this fringe area is not only coveted by waders, but also by free-roaming dogs, which constantly patrol the shoreline far from the permitted paths, making the habitat useless for most species. Sandpipers manage to breed most years – one nest I noticed last year was 30m from the water in a huge bramble bank impenetrable to canine companions.
Off-leash dogs can stray much farther than off-leash dogs, causing them more damage and disruption (Moss Taylor).
My anger at off-leash dogs on my spots is also fueled by direct threats to myself. With fairly alarming frequency, several large dogs have approached me aggressively – invariably when I’m carrying a scope and tripod – and on a couple of occasions I’ve narrowly escaped a bite and received a tirade of abuse from owners for the insolence had to imply that they should control their pets. Added to this is the not inconsiderable noise pollution from dozens of barking dogs and useless screaming owners when their protégés disappear into the reservoirs or the adjacent undergrowth.
Outside of my territory, I was even bitten by a leashed dog while birdwatching in Manchester. Another consequence of the pandemic has been an increase in dog attacks – likely the result of heightened awareness of dogs towards unfamiliar people during the coronavirus isolation and a slew of new owners without the knowledge or inclination to train their dogs. I can imagine that many bird watchers, dog owners or not, have had similarly bitter experiences.
Disturbance from off-leash dogs vastly exceeds that from dogs on leashes simply because of the area roamed. People tend to stick to footpaths while their dogs are often given free rein to cover much more ground, not only passively disturbing wildlife but actively chasing it.
This is a particular problem in blue rooms like the aforementioned reservoirs, but also on the coast. People and their dogs cover sandy beaches like no other British habitat, places that are also important feeding and resting places for birds. Disturbance is a major problem on many UK beaches and estuaries, effectively rendering them unusable for birds. Unlike solitary humans, which are usually a “benign” stimulus that many birds become accustomed to, dogs often actively hunt birds on beaches — so wildlife can’t become accustomed to them in the same way as humans. In stark contrast to the habituation that birds can show in areas where they are not being chased, being hunted by dogs leads to dog “sensitization” and increased responses.
It’s not just free-roaming dogs that cause unrest. The mere sight of a dog is a stimulus that can elicit strong responses from wildlife given the long evolutionary relationship between canids and their prey. An Australian study found that walking dogs in forests can result in a 35 percent reduction in bird diversity and a 41 percent reduction in abundance (Banks et al 2007). This highlights that even leashed dogs can have adverse effects on local bird communities.
A study comparing the responses of Eurasian curlews in southern Britain to three different types of disturbances – vehicle, person and person with dog – found that the third produced the most extreme responses, at ranges of up to 500 m (Taylor et al 2007). As a result, reserve managers sometimes ban dogs from reserves or, more commonly, require them to be walked on a leash. Dog bans or leash requirements are political interventions that can cause significant friction with local communities who do not want their freedoms to be restricted – rarely does a week go by without my friends posting experiences of illegal dog walkers on reservations on social media.
A study of the curlew showed the species was more responsive to people with dogs than people alone or vehicles (Oliver Smart / www.smartimages.co.uk).
In parts of the country where safe habitats are scarce, particularly for coastal, heathland and wetland animals, more needs to be done to either enforce the use of lead or create areas entirely free of disturbance. For some species, like the western capercaillie and woodlark, disturbance from humans and dogs poses one of the greatest threats to their existence. At a time when many of us are clamoring for more access to rural areas, we should also ensure that there are safe core spaces where wildlife is protected from any form of human-made disturbance.
The Holkham Estate in north Norfolk initiated a Dog Zoning Initiative pilot in 2021 with a traffic light system of zones marked as ‘Dogs No’, ‘Dogs on Leash April to August’ and ‘Dogs Off Leash’ on the beach and Foreshore, especially for the protection of nesting birds such. B. Little Terns. Wider adoption of such systems is needed to create more safe spaces for wildlife – and for people who don’t appreciate a stranger’s dog jumping over them. This is something I, as a former dog owner, tolerate but scares many others.
The Holkham Estate in Norfolk has implemented a traffic light system that informs dog owners where and when they can let their pets off the leash (Jim Almond).
Bird watchers who own dogs should set an example at all sites of wildlife value and speak to fellow walkers about the implications. In my experience, such conversations within “peer groups” are more likely to lead to behavior change than those coming from non-dog owners. Still, reckless behavior should be an option open to all, and not just in locations where management has already required dogs to be on a leash.
A critical mass of conversation and outreach will most likely lead to change taking place and significant disturbance to wildlife being seen as socially unacceptable as dog poop is left behind for others to intervene. Change can happen very quickly – it just takes champions to drive it forward.
Banks, PB, and Bryant, JV 2007. Four-legged friend or foe? Walking dogs crowds native birds out of natural areas. biology letters 3:611-613.
Sterl, P., Brandenburg, C., and Arnberger, A. 2008. Perception and assessment of visitors to the recovery disturbance of wild animals in the Donau-Auen National Park. Journal of Conservation 16:135-145.
Taylor, EC, Green, RE, and Perrins, J. 2007. Curlews Burhinus oedicnemus and Leisure Disturbance: Development of an Access Management Tool. ibis 149:37-44.