Gone to the Dogs – BirdGuides
Many members of the public are now at least dimly aware of the impact that over 10 million domestic cats are having on UK wildlife, and as a result there is a slow but growing acceptance that restricting feline interactions with wildlife is necessary to mitigate their predatory habits. .
The effect of dog walking on wildlife, however, has received much less media attention. Walking a dog is one of the most popular recreational activities in the world, with many associated benefits for people and their accompanying canine companions. Walking the dog is often the main motivation for many people’s visits to natural or semi-natural areas and therefore their connection with nature, which can itself promote pro-environmental behaviors. However, it seems that most dog walkers do not recognize the problem and may perceive dog walking to have much less impact on natural areas than other activities, despite scientific evidence to the contrary (see, for example, Sterling et al 2008).
Ground-nesting birds like these little terns on a Norfolk beach are particularly sensitive to disturbance; leashing dogs can make all the difference to colony survival (Robin Chittenden).
This discrepancy between perceived and actual harm is perhaps largely due to the fact that these impacts are generally what ecologists call “sub-lethal”: wildlife is harmed in some way but not, in most cases, immediately fatal. Although some dogs do occasionally end up killing wild animals (and livestock), these occasions are, compared to the predatory activities of cats, much more limited. Increasingly, however, ecological science is catching up on quantifying canine impacts — something many reserve managers and bird watchers have recognized for decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified conflicts between dogs and wildlife. A boom in pet ownership has seen the UK’s dog population swell from 10 million to 12 million in a single year – this at a time of unprecedented visitor pressure on ‘green’ and ‘blue’ spaces “. Here, I will explore the impacts that “owned” rather than “feral” dogs can have on wildlife and suggest measures to mitigate their impacts.
The reaction of birds and other wildlife to a threatening stimulus, such as humans, dogs or natural predators, is called “disturbance” and results in a change in their normal activities to adopt what are called “behaviors”. anti-predators,” such as freezing, running away, or hiding. 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 an altered heart rate.
These behaviors have a cost, and even if they are not fatal, repeated disturbances actually degrade the “quality” of a habitat and can cause the abandonment of a site, leading to the impoverishment of local biodiversity. Dogs are near-constant year-round disturbance agents at many wildlife sites, which can lead to a reduction in local biodiversity.
While many canine interactions with wildlife are labeled as “sub-lethal”, dogs do occasionally kill wildlife. This Black Guillemot didn’t stand a chance (Harvey van Diek / www.agami.nl).
In the valley
Most of my birding takes place in the Longdendale Valley, an area steeped in birding lore in the summer of 2020 when a famous bearded vulture spent a month and a half with us, even making it to my list of garden. The Longdendale Chain of Reservoirs is generally devoid of waterfowl, but daily coverage occasionally reveals the odd lost duck or the desperate migrant wading bird, particularly when the water is low enough to reveal the shores.
This marginal space is, however, coveted not only by waders, but also by off-leash dogs that continually patrol the shore away from permissive trails, rendering the habitat useless for most species. Common sandpipers are successful in breeding most years – one nest I noticed last year was 30m from the water’s edge in a huge bramble bank impenetrable to canine companions.
Off-leash dogs can roam much further than those on a leash, allowing them to cause more damage and disturbance (Moss Taylor).
My anger at off-leash dogs on my patches is also driven by direct threats to myself. With rather alarming frequency, several large dogs approached me aggressively – invariably when I was carrying a scope and tripod – and on a few occasions I narrowly escaped the bite and received a tirade of abuse by owners for having the nerve to suggest that they should control their pets. This is on top of the not-insignificant noise pollution from dozens of barking dogs and owners yelling unnecessarily as their loads disappear into adjacent reservoirs or undergrowth.
Beyond my patch, I’ve even been bitten by a dog on a leash in Manchester while birdwatching. Another consequence of the pandemic has been an increase in dog attacks – likely the product of increased awareness of dogs to strangers during the coronavirus lockdown and a slew of new owners without the knowledge or inclination to train their dogs. I imagine many birders, dog owners or not, have had such bitter experiences.
The disruption caused by off-leash dogs far outweighs that of leashed dogs to heal – simply because of the area travelled. People tend to stay on the trails, while their dogs are often given free rein to cover a lot more ground, not just passively disturbing wildlife, but also actively chasing it.
This is a particular problem in blue spaces like the aforementioned reservoirs, but also on the coast. Humans and their dogs cover sandy beaches like no other UK habitat, places that are also important feeding and resting areas for birds. Disturbance is a major problem at many UK beaches and estuaries, effectively rendering them useless for birds. Unlike humans alone, which is usually a “benign” stimulus that many birds get used to, dogs often actively hunt birds on beaches. Fauna therefore cannot get used to them in the same way as humans. Unlike the habituation that birds may show in areas where they are not being persecuted, pursuit by dogs leads to “sensitization” to dogs and increased responses.
It’s not just off-leash dogs that bother you. The very sight of a dog is a stimulus that can evoke strong responses from wildlife given the long evolutionary relationship between canids and their prey. An Australian study found that walking dogs in the woods can lead to a 35% reduction in bird diversity and a 41% reduction in abundance (Banks et al 2007). This shows that even dogs on leashes can have detrimental effects on local bird communities.
A study comparing the reactions of Eurasian Curlews in southern Britain to three different types of disturbance – vehicle, person and person with dog – found that the third elicited the most extreme responses, at distances of up to 500m (Taylor et al 2007). As a result, reserve managers sometimes ban dogs from reserves or, more often, require them to be leashed. Dog bans or leash mandates are political interventions that can cause considerable friction with local people, who don’t like their freedoms curtailed – rarely a week goes by that I don’t see friends posting experiences of dog walkers breaking rules on reserves on social media.
A study of the Eurasian Curlew has shown that the species reacts more strongly to people with dogs than to single people or vehicles (Oliver Smart / www.smartimages.co.uk).
In parts of the country where there are few safe spaces, particularly for coastal, heathland and wetland wildlife, more needs to be done to enforce the use of sinkers or create entirely disturbance-free areas. For some species, such as the western capercaillie and the wood lark, disturbance from humans and dogs pose some of the greatest threats to their existence. At a time when many of us are calling for more access to the countryside, we should also seek to ensure that there are essential safe spaces where wildlife is protected from any form of human-induced disturbance.
The Holkham Estate in North Norfolk launched a pilot ‘Dog Zoning Initiative’ in 2021 with a traffic light system of areas designated as ‘no dogs’, ‘dogs on lead April to August’ and “dogs off leash” on the beach and on the foreshore, in particular to protect nesting birds such as the Little Tern. Wider deployment of these programs is needed to create safer spaces for wildlife – and for people who resent having a stranger’s dog jump on them. It’s something I tolerate as a former dog owner, but scares many others.
The Holkham Estate in Norfolk has set up a traffic light system to let dog owners know where and when they can leave their pets off-leash (Jim Almond).
Dog-owning birders should lead by example at all sites with wildlife value and talk to other dog walkers about the impacts. In my experience, such conversations within “peer groups” may be more likely to lead to behavior change than those from non-dog owners. Nonetheless, challenging reckless behavior should be an option open to everyone, not just at sites where management has already requested that dogs be leashed.
A critical mass of conversation and awareness is more likely to see change happen and significant wildlife disturbances to be seen as socially unacceptable like leaving dog feces for others to intervene. Change can happen very quickly – all it takes is champions to drive it forward.
Banks, PB, and Bryant, J V. 2007. Four-legged friend or foe? Dog walking displaces native birds from natural areas. Biology Letters 3: 611-613.
Sterl, P, Brandenburg, C and Arnberger, A. 2008. Visitor awareness and assessment of wildlife recreational disturbance in Donau-Auen National Park. Nature Conservation Journal 16: 135-145.
Taylor, EC, Green, RE and Perrins, J. 2007. Stone Curlew Burhinus oedicnemus and recreational disturbance: development of an access management tool. Ibis 149: 37-44.