Ground nest alert! Dog walkers must lead the way...

Ground nest alert! Dog walkers must lead the way...

Leads are essential to prevent dogs harming ground-nesting birds, say The Wildlife Trusts

The celebrated song of the skylark and bubbling call of curlew are evocative and welcome sounds of spring, as people explore our wonderful countryside and urban commons again. Birds like these – whose numbers are in worrying decline – are making their fragile nests on the ground, tucked away safely in long grass.

However, too often, an exuberant or inquisitive pooch, wandering or bounding through grass or heather, easily disturbs wildlife and scares adult birds off nests or tramples eggs. And vulnerable chicks can quickly perish if they are left alone for too long.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling on dog walkers to keep their dogs on short leads to help ground-nesting birds this spring and summer. Whether you’re visiting moorland, fields, urban parks or the beach, there are birds nesting on the ground – or just above it – that can be hard to see and are at risk of trampling, disturbance, and harm.

Couple with dog

James Brittain-McVey, lead guitarist of The Vamps, dog owner and ambassador for The Wildlife Trusts says:

“I’ve learnt, as a rescue dog owner, the importance of keeping your dog under control at all times. And at this time of year, it’s especially important to remember that we can all play our part in helping birds breed successfully by keeping dogs on short leads in wild places – especially when so many species are having such a hard time.”

James Byrne, landscapes recovery programme manager for The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“Allowing dogs to run wild in nature reserves can be devastating for wildlife, particularly in spring when species are breeding and vulnerable. We’re asking dog walkers to be sensitive by keeping their animals on short leads, sticking to paths, and properly disposing of dog poo. Wildlife is already under enormous pressure – let's all keep dogs in check so as not to make things worse.

Many people think of birds’ nests as being high up in trees, but a surprising number nest on the ground or just above it, in low bushes. For example:

  • Nightjars lay their eggs directly onto the ground in heathlands
  • Willow warblers tuck themselves away at the base of trees and bushes in woods and open areas with scattered trees
  • Meadow pipits hide their eggs in grassy tussocks on commons and meadows
  • Familiar garden birds like dunnocks and blackbirds can nest close to the ground.
  • Oystercatcher, ringed plover and little tern eggs and chicks are brilliantly camouflaged on beaches among pebbles and sand, making them easy to disturb.

Some beaches have cordoned-off areas to protect some of the rarest birds’ nests – but it’s best to keep dogs on leads on all beaches and the wider countryside until chicks have fledged in September.

Keeping dogs on short leads will benefit other wildlife that can be harmed or disturbed by enthusiastic pooches – from snakes to seals and amphibians to mammals. Dogs disturbed seals at Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s South Walney nature reserves earlier this year and there are fears that seal numbers are down as a result. Other Wildlife Trusts have experienced problems with dogs chasing grazing livestock. Recently, several sheep were attacked at a nature reserve looked after by Gwent Wildlife Trust in South Wales.

The law says that you must keep your dog on a lead no longer than 2 metres between 1st March and 31st July, when on any open access land to protect ground-nesting birds. For safety, you should also always keep your dog a lead around grazing animals, although it’s safer to let your dog off if you are chased by cows or horses.

Other benefits of keeping dogs on leads include:

  • Lessening the negative impacts of dog poo and urine by reducing it to a smaller area
  • Preventing dogs jumping in lakes and rivers – this disturbs aquatic wildlife and the insecticides that are found in dog flea treatments can end up polluting water
  • Reducing risks to other animals and people

Local Wildlife Trusts ask dog walkers to avoid some of their nature reserves because the wildlife there is too rare or fragile and needs special protection. It’s always worth a look at individual nature reserve webpages before you leave home to see if dogs are allowed.

Editors Notes

  • You can find more info about being an eco-friendly pet owner here.
  • ‘Why we ask dogs to be on a short lead’ – see Suffolk Wildlife Trust here.
  • ‘Warnings disturbed seals may not return to South Walney – BBC report here.
  • Recent dog attacks on sheep on the Gwent Levels – info here.  
  • Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s sheep and ponies have died or been injured following dog attacks – more here.