Gone to the Dogs

I grew up with dogs. We had a succession of Welsh collies. Kirsty was a family pet before I was born, but sadly died young. Meg accompanied me through childhood into teenage years – I will always remember going up to the green with my dad and him letting Meg off the lead. She would immediately run off as if she had seen some phantom errant sheep. And he would be shouting “MEG!!!!” at the top of his (considerable) voice, trying to get her to come back. How embarrassing our parents can seem, until we in turn become embarrassing to our children.

After I had left home my dad had Darcey, who was beautiful and saw my brother and I as part of the pack, but didn’t like many other people, and in particular did not like children. This was tricky when we visited “home” with our girls when they were very young.

Darcey, Wanstead Park bluebells

Darcey (c) Peter King

The relationship between Canis lupus familiaris and Homo sapiens is a long and fruitful one (arguably for both species). The oldest known evidence for domestication goes back to 33,000 years ago in the Altai mountains, though this did not lead to modern dogs. The science is still developing but current estimates for the domestication which led to all modern dog breeds are pretty broad: 14,000 years ago seems to be a middle estimate. This would tie in pretty well with the development of agriculture and settlement, across the world.

For our paleolithic predecessors, wolves, from which domestic dogs evolved (if that is the right word) must have been one of those things which were feared and awed, but also useful. People would have been able to follow wolf packs and steal their kills, while wolf pelts would have been valuable for keeping warm. Wolf teeth do turn up occasionally in palaeolithic jewelry. Equally, Wolves may have stolen into camps and taken food, even occasionally children. This could be the ur-memory which lingered into folklore and gave us stories like Little Red Riding Hood, though of course these are stories from the Forest cultures of Northern Europe, not Britain. Even now, most imagery associated with wolves is negative – only this year the latest offering from Disney, “Frozen”, depicted ravening wolves attacking the heroes and their reindeer. Positive images of Wolves do occasionally crop up, such as Akela in the Jungle Book (although this is more than counter-balanced by the “bad” young wolves falling under the influence of Shere Khan); and the Roman creation myth where Romulus and Remus are suckled by wolves.

Reading a fascinating book about Ice Age art recently, I was surprised to find no depictions or sculptures of wolves in the book. It appears that depictions of wolves in the Palaeolithic are really quite rare  – here is one.  They must have been very well known to Palaeolithic peoples – so this is a bit of a mystery. Although most depicted animals are prey (Mammoth, Horse, Bison, Deer, Aurochs), large cats are depicted quite regularly  – such as this “panther” at Chauvet , Lions, and the remarkable feline head from Kostienki. It’s also difficult to believe Wolverine or Cave Bear were prey, but they were hunted for fur, and are also depicted in Ice Age art. Where are the Wolves?

As I have previously written, dogs became extremely useful, for around 14000 years, to protect livestock from their wild cousins. And of course the dog/human interaction created another type – the feral dog. These would not have “belonged” to anyone, served no direct function as hunting dogs, sled dogs, guard dogs or sheep dogs. They naturally form packs, can carry nasty diseases (rabies) and are good food thieves. It is easy to imagine, during the decline of one civilisation or another, that as buildings decay, people move out and the feral dogs move in. Feral dogs generally have a bad name and we don’t really encounter them in Britain these days – they are different from strays or abandoned pets, which elicit great sympathy on the part of society, even though their existence is due to the callous attitudes of another part of society.

I recently encountered a more sympathetic relationship between people and feral dogs, in Istanbul. We saw many cats and dogs in the old city, and they looked like they just lived on the street. We discovered from our excellent food tour guide Ugul, that the City Authorities had planned to round them up and get rid of them but the local communities protested and formed a community group/charity to pay for them to be cared for.  Now feral cats and dogs in Istanbul are rounded up annually, given a health check and vaccinated, then returned to their patches. They are not spayed. Cats are welcome and often found sleeping in shop windows on killims and carpets. Dogs are less frequent but we noticed about 6 lying around in Gulhane park in front of the gate into the Topkapi Palace. People evidently feed these animals and treat them well. Ugul told us keeping dogs as pets is becoming increasingly popular in Istanbul, though still not that common.

Our modern relationship with wild Wolves is also interesting. It’s now so long since Wolves were wild in Britain that they no longer exist even in our deep cultural memory.

Elsewhere the Wolf is symbolically found quite often to be associated with violence  – returning to Turkey, The Grey Wolves is a shadowy fascistic militant organisation created at the outset of the Cold War, as part of the Gladio underground resistance network. It would appear to be still functioning and have very significant influence in that country even now.

Just recently in Ukraine an old  Wolf-related image re-appeared  – the Wolfsangel


the Wolfsangel as a heraldic symbol.

It re-appeared as the symbol of the neofascist Svoboda party daubed on the door of a Kiev synagogue. The Wolfsangel, before it became a fascist symbol, originated as a wolf trap, the wolf hook. The symbology is powerful, as usual with fascist politics, and both implies superiority over the predator, and respect for/identification with it.

Still, our domestic dogs are a million miles from all this darkness aren’t they? Perhaps not. Incidents of domestic dogs “worrying” livestock are causing a great of anguish amongst the naturally dog-loving, farming community. In Cumbria alone last year, there were 113 “worrying” incidents reported, including 49 resulting in livestock deaths. Just this week in Dorset, an incident where a lurcher had chased and fatally wounded a deer on National Trust land was reported. The dog owner, who witnessed the attack, seemed entirely unconcerned saying “these things happen” before walking off.

But I don’t want to over-egg this issue of dogs killing livestock – there are 8.5 Million dogs in the UK, and 25% of households have a dog. I’m more interested in another issue – what happens to all their poo and wee?

People like taking their dogs for a walk in nice places, like the local park, a local greenspace, a heathland, a nature reserve. Footprint Ecology, where I work, is the leading expert organisation assessing the impact of visitors on high value wildlife sites, particularly heathlands. The evidence from Footprint’s research (and others) is clear that dogs disturb ground-nesting birds like Nightjar and Stone Curlew.

What is less clear is what impact all the dog emptying has – the research is almost non-existent. One site where some research has been carried out is the wonderful Burnham Beeches in the Chilterns. Research there indicated that 50 tonnes of dog poo and 30 tonnes of dog wee were deposited on this Special Area of Conservation, per annum. This is an astonishing figure by any reckoning. Although it’s very difficult to know exactly, and it’s not the sort of research many people would wish to carry out, estimates suggest only about a third of poo is picked up by dog-walkers, and obviously no wee.S ome like to bag their dog’s poo and then leave it somewhere, or throw it in a tree.


dog poo deposited next to dog poo bin (c) Miles King

As dog poo is around 0.7% Nitrogen (N) and 0.25% Phosphate (P). Roughly 250kg of (N) and 100kg of (P) are deposited on Burnham Beeches every year, just from dogs, concentrated in a relatively small area around the car parks and honey pots.In the New Forest, it was calculated that 7,500 tonnes of dog excrement was deposited per annum (roughly half poo and half wee) – and that was 10 years ago; I expect that figure has increased substantially.  Still that equates to 25 tonnes of N a year, concentrated into the popular dog-walking areas.

Critical loads for N in lowland heathland and semi-natural woodland are between 10-20kg/ha – that means above this N deposition above this figure starts to affect the quality of the habitat, or lead to it becoming something else (less valuable for nature). Phosphate is a limiting factor in heathland and any additional P can hasten a change to other habitats including birch woodland. In the New Forest the dog poo would need to be spread evenly across 2500ha or more to avoid exceeding the critical load.



bagged and flung. (c) Miles King

While some sites important for nature can have moderate levels of N and P, in most cases the opposite is true. Excess N and P shift the balance in soils from fungal dominated soils (such as mycorrhizae vital for plant and tree health) to bacterial dominated soils, where only a small number of plant species, that can take advantage of the extra nutrients, can thrive. In forest systems trees are totally dependant on mycorrhizal symbionts for tree health and nutrients can affect tree health by damaging these fungal interactions.

In Scotland farmers are now becoming so concerned about dog poo that they are campaigning to call for the power to impose fines on dog owners who allow their animals to poo on farmland and not pick it up. Presumably this does not relate to dog poo’s fertilising powers, but other issues such as spread of disease.

Another related problem associated with dog poo on high nature value sites is the excretion of veterinary medicines. Frontline is probably one the most successful and popular vet medicines, due to its effectiveness against fleas and ticks.  The active ingredient is Fipronil which is also used as an agricultural insecticide. It’s not a neonicotinoid but it has similar effects and is implicated in pollinator decline to the extent that the EU banned it for use on certain crops last year; it has quite a long half life once in vegetation (months). It isn’t much used in UK agriculture.

Fipronil is applied as to topically to dogs (and cats). Although I couldn’t find data for dogs, goats excrete 25-50% of  active Fipronil metabolites through their faeces. Let’s be cautious and assume for dogs it’s 25% excretion. If every dog has a dose of Fipronil every month (as recommended by the makers), and each dose is 10% fipronil and a dose is weight dependent but let’s say an average of 2ml, then every dog is excreting 0.6ml of pure fipronil per year into the environment.

That doesn’t sound like much does it? Scale that up to the dog population of 8.5 million and doggies are leaving 5000 litres of fipronil wherever they go. Of course quite a bit of this will be in dog-owners  back gardens (so much for gardens being good places for pollinators). This is because fipronil is incredibly powerful. 0.004 microgrammes will kill 50% of bees that ingest it: so each dog is excreting enough fipronil to kill 200 bees per day, more or less. And that’s not even taking into account the other mega powerful insecticide, methoprene, in Frontline.

I’m not singling out Frontline for criticism – other products are available. Advocate for example contains the neonicotinoid imidacloprid, while anti-worming medicines such as Avermectins are known to affect soil fauna.  Also, it’s never the dog’s fault whatever it does, and we all make choices – whether to have a pet or not, whether we feel it’s our right to let the dog run free, worry livestock, flush birds from their nests, and poo where it likes; and whether to use vet medicines to keep our pets free of fleas and ticks. And I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the level of Fipronil (and other pet insecticides) deposited into the environment is having a significant effect on our wildlife, though I suspect they are – and in any case shouldn’t we be concerned enough to find out?

In some ways it would be better if dog-walkers took their dogs on intensively farmed land where there are already plenty of nutrients and pesticides. But dog walkers do tend to like going to nature reserves, open spaces and the like, because they are nice places to go for a walk. Yet these are the very places where this deposition of N, P and insecticides is going to have the most serious effect on wildlife.

Clearly one big step forward would be to make sure that all dog owners pick up their dog’s poo. This will have to be through a carrot and stick approach (as opposed to the stick and flick approach, which just moves the problem off the paths), but doesn’t address dog-wee.

One could argue that dog-owners are taking private benefits from the environment (their and their dog’s pleasure and toilet activities) at the cost of public environmental goods (environmental damage and loss of pleasure from non-dog-owning walkers). Unless of course you believe dog health and wellbeing is an ecosystem service that should sit alongside human health and wellbeing. I haven’t heard that argument used – yet.

Assuming ecosystem services for dogs is not yet an accepted principle, should dog-owners have to pay to offset the public cost of their private actions? Or should dog-owners be restricted in their access to some land, based on the damage done? The CROW act allows grouse-moor owners to ban dogs from grouse-moors without compensation for up to 5 years at a time, at their discretion. It’s odd that this facility is not available for owners of SSSIs or nature reserves. Or is it?

Access (with or without dogs) can be restricted for nature conservation purposes, but it must be applied for and can be turned down. Natural England have recently made all National Nature Reserves open access land.  Have they thought about the implications of more dog poo and wee (and insecticides) on these National Natural Treasures? They didn’t even think it worth carrying out a Habitat Regulations Assessment on the many NNRs that are European Sites such as SPAs and SACs, to see if the increased level of access could cause disturbance to European protected species and habitats.

It does seem as though our conflicted relationship with “man’s best friend” is a truly bizarre one. On the one hand, the idea of re-introducing a native mammal (the wolf) that plays a critical role in ecosystem dynamics and was persecuted and hunted to extinction in Britain, creates a tide of invective that would make it unlikely any time soon, outside some heavily fenced enclosures in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand we cherish millions of its domestic relatives which we take to the countryside, where they are allowed to kill and disturb wildlife,  while freely spreading fertiliser and pesticide in our most treasured natural places.

Perhaps the wolf/dog has come out on top after all.










About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agricultural pests, bees, dogs, ecosystem services, eutrophication, Neonicotinoids, Uncategorized, wolves and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Gone to the Dogs

  1. This is an issue that has been exercising my brain for a while and something I teach in my conservation courses, although I hadn’t got any figures before.
    In this world of increasing demands for fertile soils, faeces is potentially a very important resource. As a result, I have been looking at composting dog poo and have a successful small-scale system in my garden ( some details here: http://thesnailofhappiness.com/2013/08/12/dog-poo-experiments/ and I have a new post planned following up on this) and I know that others are working on the problem too (including Deano over at the Sustainable Smallholding). Urine of course is a more difficult issue, but encouraging dogs to toilet in the garden is certainly helpful. It’s a problem we need to think about more… thanks for the post.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much. As well as direct composting, I think the potential to use dog poo as a feedstock for AD biogas plants, which in the process converts it into compost, is also worth exploring. It would mean the dog poo (and other suitable feedstock) had to be kept separate from inert waste at the point of disposal, or alternatively separated (at some cost) at a later point in the process. But it must be doable I would have thought, especially in urban areas where collection was more feasible. If dog walkers took their dog poo home with them then they could deposit it into suitable containers where it could be collected for transport to the local AD plant.

  2. seasonalight says:

    Vet meds, a good point, but concerns all livestock, to which a considerablly large acreage is dedicated.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Ginny. Are livestock treated with fipronil/imidocloprid? When grazing on high nature sites stock can be restricted from grazing, while they are excreting vet products. This is already a big issue with avermectins and pyrethroids.

  3. Graham Bellamy says:

    ..is dog related N deposition likely to be significant compared with atmospheric deposition..that i assume comes mainly from agriculture and traffic?…would like to know which to be worried about most! in Bedfordshire many ancient woodlands becoming dominated with cleavers, nettles and cow parsley without significant input from dogs…its a sort of “lets protect whales but lets hoover up krill” situation perhaps…

    • Miles says:

      thanks Graham. It’s a good question. I think the difference is how one would go about reducing the N from different sources. It is at least achievable through education and other measures to reduce dog-N by getting people to pick up their dog poo. Reducing the impact of N from vehicle emissions or agriculture is a whole order of magnitude more difficult. Also, dog-N is deposited in highly concentrated form whereas atmospheric N is equally deposited across much larger areas.

      • Charlie R says:

        You say: “In the New Forest the dog poo would need to be spread evenly across 2500ha or more to avoid exceeding the critical load.”
        Total New Forest SSI area is 28924ha, so (if spread evenly) dog poo is circa 10% of total critical load.
        Average N deposition for the site is 13.7kg/ha/yr. The APIS website gives more info on sources, but does not include dog. European and livestock sources are greater, than 10%, fertiliser (UK) and transport (UK) are less than 10%. Sounds pretty significant, but not dominant.

      • Miles King says:

        Thanks Charlie. The key word here is evenly. Of course the dog poo in the New Forest is not spread evenly, it is concentrated in very specific areas. Where it is concentrated, N and P loads will be exceeded. I wasn’t claiming that the entire New Forest (National Park or SAC) was going to exceed critical loads just on dog poo. It was meant to be an illustration of the scale of the problem.

  4. navasolanature says:

    I have owned a dog and also considered some of the environmental impact and in particular the amount of dog turd I have had to pick up and dispose of. Rarely biodegradable poo bags. Hounslow Heath have a comment on removing dog poo as it does affect the heathland but I often wonder who reads the small print. Also in feeding our dogs how environmentally friendly or compassionate is the food we feed them. I miss my dog but am at present learning to live with the wild things at our place in Spain. Thanks for this and maybe we all need to be more educated and informed about the impact we have on the planet. In Spain the wild boar can be a problem without a natural predator although there are the keen Spanish hunters to keep the numbers down.

    • Miles says:

      Thanks for your comment. The whole issue of the food our pets eat, where it comes from and its environmental footprint is another huge area which I deliberately steered away from, but is very important yes. Any wolves in Spain?

      • navasolanature says:

        Some on the borders with Portugal in the north; the Iberian wolf, slightly smaller. I visited a rescue centre in Portugal once but no wolves in our area so the wild boar breed well and then get hunted by the Caza loving Spanish. I guess it does keep their numbers down. It seems it is only about 50 years ago that there were wolves in our Sierra Aracena and there still maybe lynx. These are doing quite well further south in the Donana reserve. Contentious, the carbon footprint of our pets? But surely could be improved and am sure many pet owners would be willing.

      • Miles King says:

        thanks for your comment.

      • Sue Everett says:

        Report of wolves now close to Madrid. Sue

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  8. mcafrome says:

    Hi Miles, Alice Roberts presents the latest evidence on domestication – 36,000 years ago. Just saw her on tour – worth going. There’s a book too – Tamed. Sue

  9. Sue Everett says:

    Is one way forward a robust dog-licensing scheme? A one-off fee of at least £100, requiring dogs to be chipped and DNA taken, and owner’s details to be kept up to date (like cars have registered keepers) would be possible. Such a scheme would enable dog-attacks on livestock and dog-fouling offences to be traced to the perpetrator. A fee would also deter many people from keeping dogs, and by this means the dog population would eventually decline further. The fee would also pay for enforcement and education, and perhaps would need to be implemented via an existing charity rather than through local authorities, which would probably find many ways to siphon off the money to cover their not insubstantial overheads. I’ll be putting a link to your blog in next CN Miles, along with this comment! Sue PS it wouldn’t deal with all the issues you rightly raise.

  10. Phil Smith says:

    Earlier this year, I wrote a 21-page report on dog problems on the Sefton Coast in north Merseyside, based on over 20 years of observations. The area comprises the largest sand-dune system in England and is nationally and internationally designated for its outstanding wildlife interest, including two National Nature Reserves. The impacts of dogs here are similar to those highlighted in other studies, for example:
    Frequent attacks on and harassment of other users;
    Extensive dog-fouling, leading to reduced amenity and eutrophication of vegetation and soils;
    Reduction of ground-nesting birds;
    Disturbance of internationally important high-tide roosts of shore-birds and chasing of other wildlife;
    Use of wetland sites, including Natterjack Toad breeding sites for dog-bathing;
    Attacks on livestock used for conservation grazing in nature reserves.
    In February Sefton Council consulted on a proposed Public Space Protection Order which would have introduced some restrictions, such as controlling the number of dogs being walked by one person and requiring dogs to be on a lead in defined areas, particularly nature reserves. However, they backed down in the face of organised opposition from dog-walkers and their friends in high places.

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