Teifi Marshes ranger Howard Jones gives us his personal experience on balancing the needs of managing one of our flagship nature reserves with those of our dog-owning visitors, and explains why a new tool is being deployed to help deal with problem cases.
After about a year working at Teifi Marshes I’ve recently been co-ordinating with Pembrokeshire County Council to introduce a Dog Control Order, which will apply to the whole of the Reserve. Public consultation ran through the month of March, with the vast majority of responses received by me out on the Reserve, by staff at the Wildlife Centre, and by Pembrokeshire Council’s environmental health team happily being overwhelming positive and welcoming of the move. We have received a small number of less positive comments too, but have decided we have little choice but to proceed with the Order, for reasons which I outline below.
The Order will come into force on 1st May 2014. In essence it allows Wildlife Centre staff to require dog owners to put their dogs on leads if asked to do so, and requires dog owners pick up their dog’s mess. Failure to comply with these surely reasonable steps potentially lays the dog owner open to a £70 fine, enforceable through the criminal Courts.
To some dog owners I guess that this appears big step to take and a pretty draconian stance. The Trust wants to welcome all visitors to its sites, and we really value our many responsible local and visiting dog walkers. In fact we hope that the many responsible dog walkers will not be affected. Why introduce the Order then?
Well, many of the problems dogs can cause at visitor centres and nature reserves are felt particularly keenly at Teifi Marshes; through large visitor numbers, and whilst they are a minority, an unacceptable number of badly trained, ill-controlled hounds. Many of the issues associated with dogs are so very well known; re-hashed and re-stated in myriad leaflets, signs and notices, to the point where they are taken for granted and ignored. However, this doesn’t make dog problems any less real, or frankly upsetting, to visitors and many of the staff and volunteers who work here. These include:
- Health. All dog owners know full well that dog fouling causes health issues. Here we have picnic areas, a children’s playground, green areas where people walk, sit, eat and talk, and where children roam free. We have volunteers clearing pathways, cutting the grass, mending boardwalks, managing the Reserve. All these people are at risk of diseases carried in dog mess. I worked here one weekend with my young daughters, coppicing hazel in the autumn sun, only to see them end up covered in dog mess. If you let your dog off a lead you cannot know where it goes; you are putting all these people at risk. If you are too lazy to pick up after your dog, or pick up, put the mess in a plastic bag, and leave it lying around... you are putting all these people at risk of serious health implications.
- Fear. All dog owners know that, however much they love their dogs, some people, especially the very young and the very old, don’t like dogs, and can be scared by boisterous dogs. I’m one of these strange individuals. I don’t like dogs bouncing up to me after my food when I’m eating, nor do I like them jumping up at me all covered in mud. If you don’t put your dog on a lead you are potentially spoiling someone else’s visit to the Reserve. We have very many complaints from visitors about dog mess and boisterous dogs every year. I’d also point out we had two attacks by dogs on dogs at the Reserve this last year. Leave your dog off a lead, you’re putting it at risk.
- Wildlife. I met a lady here last summer, watching her two dogs try to chase mute swans in one of our lakes. When I challenged her she denied they’d been swimming, and said they were wet from sweating. Today a Dalmatian ran straight across our new wildlife garden, through the Centre and bounded off gaily up into the woods. This after I’d asked its owner to put it on a lead. Extreme examples perhaps, but if you let your dog off a lead on a nature reserve you are putting wildlife at risk.
- Grazing animals. The Reserve is grazed by ponies and water buffalo. Sheep and highland cattle graze adjoining land. Dogs off leads are a risk to these animals. Water buffalo are a risk to dogs. Adjoining land is farmed and the graziers have the right to shoot dogs worrying their animals.
- Biodiversity. When I mention this to some dog owners their eyes glaze over in disbelief, but dog faeces is highly nutrient rich, and a surfeit of the smelly stuff comes with impacts on delicate nature reserves. I once volunteered on a botanic survey on an enormously diverse Shropshire Wildlife Trust site (I was carrying the gear and making the tea). This site had dog problems too. The vegetation alongside the paths, absolutely thick with faeces, bore witness to this: dominated by nettles, dock, rye grass and false oat grass, and this in one of the UK’s biodiversity hotspots.
- Children. Children are the only hope for the future of a natural, diverse, wildlife friendly Britain; and living in a natural, diverse, wildlife friendly Britain is their only hope of leading full, healthy, satisfying lives. A huge part of our role as caring adults is to enthuse them, point them towards nature’s beauty and wonder, help them feel free and at home in the outdoors. Who’s going to bring their kids to a nature reserve full of dog mess and bounding beasts, all of which, to a watchful parent, are potential threats? Dog owners who refuse to put their dogs on leads, or fail to pick up after their hounds, play their part in keeping children cooped up and restricted.
Right. Rant over. I hope all reasonable dog owners will understand why we’ve had to bring in the Dog Control Order at Teifi Marshes. And I apologise to any reasonable dog owner who feels offended, or is put out, by my part in bringing in this Order, but needs must.
Please be assured that we do not intend running around like Keystone cops, issuing penalty notices to the owner of every ancient, arthritic poodle that plods placidly around unleashed. We hope we don’t issue any penalty notices at all in truth, and that the mere fact of the Order will help change the behaviour of the substantial number of nuisance dog owners we encounter at the Reserve. We want to continue to welcome responsible dog owners to our nature reserves but it’s important that the minority do not spoil it for the majority.