After a grey, hard winter we all need spring as never before. But, as we swarm across the landscape, what impact will we ourselves have on nature? In late summer last year, a reserve warden friend posted on social media that she was having a difficult day. I learned, on texting to check she was ok, that she had seen the only ringed plover chick on her reserve killed by a dog.
Last spring and summer, as lockdown restrictions were lifted, we spilled into the countryside, gasping for air after two sterile months at home. With us we took our barbecues, our picnics, our tents, our deckchairs and our dogs. Wardens along the Norfolk coast, and further afield, witnessed countless incidents of selfishness, destructiveness or simple ignorance. They shifted truckloads of abandoned tents, dog mess, throwaway barbecues and bottles from the beaches, dunes and marshes of their reserves. It was a gruelling season and they wait for spring and summer 2021 with trepidation.
It is easy to tut, to blame shallow city-dwellers for ruining our countryside. As always in life, though, the truth is far more nuanced. Every time we go outside, inevitably we affect wild species all around us. Our influence can be hugely positive, of course. Many of us have gardens or organic allotments which bristle with life; or ponds in which frogs, toads and smooth newts breed. Many of us are conservation volunteers: creating habitat for declining species, or inspiring young people, and those with limited access to the outdoors, to explore nature, and in turn become new advocates for wildlife. Our impact in the countryside can be beneficial, both for nature and for ourselves.
All too often we have negative impacts too, even when our intentions are entirely innocent. Our dogs, for example, can be disruptive, simply by being dogs. I grew up with dogs and I love their open-hearted friendliness. Most of my friends in conservation are dog people too; and many wardens have a dog. It is absolutely not the case that nature conservationists are anti-dog.
But — above all else — we are pro-nature; and there are places where dogs don’t belong, and places where dogs should always be kept on leads, no matter the time of year. For often we humans are unaware of the impacts our dogs have on sensitive wild species, even when we truly believe they are doing no harm.
Take for example my friend’s ringed plover chick on the beach last year. Ringed plovers are gorgeous birds, whose sand-brown plumage and pattern of black and white break up their outlines as they sit exposed on nests among razor shells and flints on Norfolk beaches. Their eggs too — putty grey and spattered with black — are camouflaged against the shells and shingle among which these declining birds have evolved to nest. This strategy, sitting in the open, but unseen, has worked for millions of years. Nests and chicks have always been lost, of course — to storms and predators and disease — but enough young have fledged for healthy populations of ringed plovers (and oystercatchers and little terns) to persist on our beaches. These days, thanks to the sheer pressure of humans, dogs and horses on every beach, far too many ringed plover nests fail.
In woods and meadows a similar problem pertains. These are exciting places to be a dog: full of stories written in scent by animals about their business, each smell begging to be followed by an inquisitive nose. But a dog off its lead, crashing through undergrowth, or racing across a marsh in springtime, is not just having fun: sadly, it is also harming wildlife. Many declining birds — woodcock, woodlark, nightingale, curlew, lapwing and snipe — nest on the ground. Each time these birds are flushed from the nest is a time their eggs or chicks are exposed to magpies, jays and crows. Every time a dog follows its nose to a nest, a trail is left which may later be followed by a wild predator. A dog running full pelt off its lead is a joyous sight; but to our wildlife it is a menace.
I long for the day when vaccinations and relaxed rules mean I can walk my parents’ little Labrador again. I miss my friend who wags her tail so hard her bottom wiggles; who leans on me so lovingly she slides down my leg and ends up on her rump. There are hares where we walk, grey partridges, skylarks, roe deer, lapwings and oystercatchers. For this reason my little friend is always on her lead. She loves these walks. My parents and I, we love them too, in the knowledge that, safe on her lead, our little friend poses no threat to wildlife.
Watch our film about protecting wildlife when visiting with your dog. If you want to visit with your dog, please check before you visit. On the nature reserve pages, please click on 'dogs policy' on the righthand side for site specific information on if it is possible to visit with your dog.