Dog walkers vs wildlife

Dog walking in Kent country park
Author’s own photo of a Kent country park while walking with her dog

According to statistical site Statista, after Germany, in 2021 the United Kingdom was the second highest-ranking European country in terms of its dog population.

“…pet ownership levels peaked to an unprecedented high of 62 percent in 2021/22, likely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and increased time spent at home.”

More than half of UK households own at least 1 pet. Dogs and cats are the most common household pets, with an estimated 13 million dogs and 12 million cats keeping their owners company.

This often exceeds the number of British wild animals in danger of extinction due to shrinking habitats and modern farming methods. Do dog owners put the welfare of their pets above the lives of protected wild species?

I admit: I am an ardent dog lover

Anybody following me on social media will notice that most of my non-political posts or tweets are about animals, most frequently dogs. On Facebook, I must have put up around 100 photos of dogs. For me, my dogs are family. Some of my relatives and friends consider my commitment to my dogs exaggerated. However, I feel that the devotion and loyalty of my dogs deserve that I make their sadly only short lives with me as pleasant as possible.

My dogs give me much joy and are beneficial to my mental and physical health. If it wasn’t for my dogs, you would not see me venture out into the fresh air on rainy, windy and cold days. Often, a walk with my dogs helped me get rid of a headache and improve my mood after a tough day in the office. Since my lively Springer spaniel died, I have put on weight. I used to walk 2 hours a day when my dogs were young and now only do 3 twenty minute walks.

Author’s photograph of dogs enjoying a puddle on a deserted golf course

Not everybody shares our love of dogs

However much joy our dogs bring us, responsible owners must take into consideration that not everybody loves dogs (not even our dog) as much as we do. Of course, we are not likely to have them as close friends. But they might have had bad experience with an aggressive dog, making them frightened of all dogs. Some might come from a culture where having a pet dog is unheard of or rare. Others might prefer other pets like cats or guinea pigs. Wen I lived in a more culturally diverse part of London, I noticed that some Muslims went out of their way not to come into contact with my dog. They consider dogs unclean and abhor touching them.

Are you a selfish dog owner?

I’m afraid I have experienced very selfish dog owners. They thought nothing of letting their boisterous or even unfriendly dogs off the lead in a public park, ignoring the fact that their darlings harassed other dogs and people. I also read about farmers losing live stock through dogs running free on their land.

The UK has wonderful countryside and we are lucky that people can even walk on private land on public foot paths. Other European countries are not so generous with land made available for rambling, walking or climbing. We are also very lucky, being an island, to have so many inviting, sandy beaches to enjoy.

However, these freedoms bring with them some responsibility to stop anything from harming these wonderful places.

Our editor received a copy of an e-Mail exchange between a wildlife photographer and the Kent Wildlife Trust. He is a frequent visitor to Kent Wildlife Reserves to observe and photograph Grebes.

Recently, he has encountered behaviour by visitors which he found very disturbing:
“Sunday afternoon I called into Sevenoaks and there were two families having a picnic by the West Lake also playing music, there were two families with dogs off their leads……
Monday morning, I confronted a jogger with their dog off it’s lead coming past the West Lake, they told me they was allowed to jog now and if their dog wanted to come along that was fine by them!!’

Photo by author

What are the rules and laws regulating dog walkers in public?

For your and your dog’s safety the ‘Explore Kent’ website lists some advice for dog walkers.

“Here are some top tips from the NFU to help you:

  • Stay vigilant, especially when entering a field – you may not be able to see the whole field.
  • Cows are inquisitive animals. If cattle follow you try to stay calm and walk quickly and quietly round the herd.
  • Don’t get between cows and their calves. Walk round the herd and re-join the path when safe.
  • If you have a dog, keep it on a short lead around cows and sheep, but release if threatened by cattle so you can both get to safety separately.
  • If you feel threatened by animals protecting their territory or young, don’t panic or run. Move to the edge of the field and, if possible, find another way round.
  • If the farmer has offered an alternative route because livestock are grazing, please use it to help the farmer keep you safe.”

Author’s note: Please, be aware: Farmers have the right to shoot any dog that they consider a threat to their live stock.

About your rights and duties to protect wildlife and fauna

Explore Kent says:

“Since 2000 there has been a right to walk across most open spaces that can comprise of downland, heathland, moorland and registered common land.  You will be made aware you are entering Access Land by means of a sign placed at the points of entry.  Access Land Legislation requires that dogs are kept on a lead shorter than 2 metres from the 1st March to 31st July.  This is to protect ground nesting birds.  Folkestone Downs has spectacular views and is linked to two important wildlife reserves.”

Country Parks and Nature Reserves

Explore Kent advises dog walkers to please, check the individual dog walking guidance at the country park or nature reserve you are planning on visiting. For Kent Country Parks, advice on bringing your dog can be found on the individual park pages. For example, Shorne Woods Country Park is in the pretty Kent Downs. You can bring your dog and explore one of several way marked trails. Afterwards, you can have some wood fired pizza from their super pizza kitchen.

But, please keep to information on special signage drawing attention to protected wildlife.
Kent Wildlife Trust warns that for example at the London Wetland Centre, which has a huge number of visitors,

“dog walkers are now, and will continue to be, prohibited from using the site. This message will be strengthened with new signage and the redesigned visitor centre (VC) as we move forward. E-scooters are also not allowed and, again, signage and the new look VC will help to manage this…..”

Author’s photograph: Dogs playing fetch

Dog walking in Lullingstone Country Park

Checking rules for this wonderful park I have been walking my dogs in, I found a warning:
“Dog walkers: Please keep dogs under close control and avoid allowing your dog on the fairways and bunkers at all times.”

However, what “close control” means might need detailed description. For me the sign leaves too much to the owners’ interpretation. Some people think their sweet pets are under control if they don’t run out of sight and come back when called, with the rabbit they caught for supper.

Spelling out that dogs are to be kept on the lead at all times, albeit in some areas on a long extension lead might save some lives. We tend to forget that our dogs are all hunters, even if a chihuahua or dachshund might not manage to catch the prey. But chasing nesting birds or wildlife living on the ground most likely causes deaths through shock.

Please, be a responsible dog owner and respect wildlife and fauna. And clean up after yourself and your dog.