I recently wrote about Dogs and nature. Dogs undoubtedly have a fantastic social value, but also a large environmental footprint, not least in areas valuable for their nature. This causes some interesting tensions to arise, as dog-lovers also tend to be interested in nature, and to care about animals, wild and domestic.
As I wrote before, Burnham Beeches is a fabulously valuable site for nature on the outskirts of London. It is also a mecca for dog-walkers, including professional dog walkers. The Corporation of London, who own and manage Burnham Beeches, have become increasingly concerned about the impact of dog-walking on the nature of the Beeches, specifically the 50 Tonnes of dog poo and 30 tonnes of dog wee deposited every year from dogs. Also, CoL has re-introduced livestock to the Beeches for the benefit of the species and habitat there, and they have experienced problems of stock being disturbed by out of control dogs. The Corporation have spent years trying to use voluntary approaches to limit the impact of dog walkers at Burnham Beeches. They have used signage, introduced dog bins, increased the number of wardens and carried out surveys. All those voluntary avenues have been used and the problem has not gone away. With a recent change in the law which enabled Dog Control Orders to be applied to private land such as Burnham Beeches, The Corporation has decided to take the regulatory path.
Last year the CoL surveyed the opinions of visitors to Burnham Beeches, including how they felt about dog-walking. They put forward a number of proposals to the public, concerning the introduction of restrictions on what dog-walkers could do, and asked for the public’s views. The public were supportive of introducing some restrictions, and the comments received were taken on board by CoL who amended the proposals.
These amended proposals are now out for public consultation – here is the link.
The proposals would enable Burnham Beeches staff to require dog-walkers to put their dogs on a lead in part of the site, and to ensure that dog-walkers have their dogs under close control (off the lead) on the remaining 220 acres (this is 3 times the area that a typical dog walker at BB requires and more than sufficient to ensure the mental health and well being of even the largest dog). It would also enable staff to require dog-walkers to pick up their dog’s poo (only about 30% do at the moment); and require people to limit the number of dogs walked per individual to four, so as to try and control the increasing number of professional dog walkers who walk more dogs than they can control.
Please do respond to the consultation and provide comments back to Burnham Beeches – this applies whether you use the site or not. I think what CoL are proposing at Burnham is sensible and measured and what happens at Burnham will have a bearing on whether other sites in a similar situation can effectively use Dog Control Orders to limit the impact of dog-walking. Please give them your support, if you agree with what they are proposing.
Not surprisingly the proposals have met with stiff opposition, from the Kennel Club. The KC is an interesting beast – it is literally a Mayfair gentleman’s club – it was founded in 1873 by 13 gentlemen who were concerned that the new fashion for dog shows and dog field trials was becoming a free for all. It was mostly interested in pedigree dog breeds until very recently. It now styles itself as representing all responsible dog-owners. It still has its Mayfair club headquarters in Clarges Street Mayfair.
Does the Kennel Club really represent all responsible dog-owners? They came in for severe criticism for supporting the breeding of pedigree dogs that were so inbred as to have major health problems. This led to the BBC stopping the broadcasting of Cruft’s dog show. Under severe public pressure, KC has brought in an accredited breeder scheme, though there have been accusations that the KC is judge and jury for breeders, since the KC is essentially a dog breeders club. Perhaps KC are trying to reinvent themselves as the “champions of the normal dog-owning public” to draw attention away from this unsavoury history.
The KC has issued a press release. The KC is against the proposal to introduce Dog Control Orders at Burnham Beeches. Their arguments are:
- Restricting dog-walking (especially off-lead) at Burnham Beeches will displace dog-walking to less suitable places elsewhere – they mention “recreation grounds and playing fields” – which will be a bad thing.
- Restricting off-lead dog-walking to areas that are grazed by livestock will be dangerous for dog-walkers.
- Restricting off-lead dog-walking to areas with unsuitable terrain will make it difficult for older and disabled dog-walkers.
- Dogs need regular off-lead exercise. Restricting the area available to them will threaten dog welfare.
- Restricting the number of dogs walked by any one person to four is at odds with Defra guidance who advise that six dogs can safely be walked at a time.
- The KC agree with encouraging dog-walkers to pick up after their dogs (but not to require it).
- The KC quoted a local professional dog trainer Lorraine Gibbons who was worried about elderly and disabled dog-walkers “it is unrealistic to expect them to travel miles to other suitably large open areas for their dogs to get off-lead exercise”.
- Gibbons goes on to suggest that the DCO will cause environmental damage by forcing dog-walkers to use their cars more.
The KC arguments seem, to me, to be based on their belief that there is a fundamental human right for dog-walkers to walk their dogs where they liked, on or off the lead, regardless of the impact of their behaviour on anyone or anything else.
They clearly feel a sense of entitlement. That they use elderly and disabled dog walkers to bolster their arguments does them no favours and smacks of opportunism even exploitation. They are all for responsible dog-walking but only on their terms.
They use veiled threats – that controlling dog-walking at Burnham Beeches will displace dog-walking to playing fields and recreation areas. Now why would that be a problem? Presumably because dog owners might not pick up their dog’s poo, or because there might be a danger that a dog attacked a child for example. As if that was ok at Burnham Beeches, or anywhere else.
Their attitude to livestock is very informative. They apparently support better practice for dog-walking and livestock; yet they clearly regard off-lead dog-walking as a higher priority than livestock grazing at Burnham Beeches. Guidance is clear, that dogs must be kept under control around livestock – livestock take precedence, not dogs.
In a briefing the Kennel Club have produced to help their members lobby against the Dog Control Order, they make a breathtaking claim – that “the Kennel Club strongly opposes Schedule 2 as it is more extensive and restrictive than any other dog control order, national law or local bylaw in the UK, including on sites with much higher levels of nature conservation designation than Burnham Beeches. “
Just for the record, Burnham Beeches is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a National Nature Reserve and a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive. It is simply not possible for a site to have any higher level of nature conservation designation. Perhaps the Kennel Club have got this Burnham Beeches mixed up with another site of the same name? Or perhaps the Kennel Club have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.
The Kennel Club goes on, in its briefing, to say
“In addition, Burnham Beeches site is primarily designated for its ancient trees, which the Kennel Club does not believe are threatened by off-lead dogs. On other more sensitive sites, restrictions are timed to coincide with the nesting season, and not year round as proposed in Burnham Beeches. The Kennel Club would support targeted and proportionate restrictions.”
Now leaving aside whether trees have nesting seasons or not, Burnham Beeches SSSI is designated for its mature woodland, scrub and heath, including veteran trees. The Special Area of Conservation, whose considerably stronger protection drives the decision making process at Burnham, is designated for its Atlantic acidophilous Beech Forests.
The current, extremely brief, Conservation Objectives include maintaining or restoring “the supporting processes on which qualifying natural habitat and habitats of qualifying species rely.” Healthy soils devoid of nitrate, phospate and veterinary pesticides from dog excreta would, to my mind, fall into this category.
The KC has produced an audaciously biased online survey for dog-walkers to complete. Have a look at it here and compare with the methodology of the visitor survey conducted by the Corporation. It’s worth pointing out that this survey was conducted by Footprint Ecology, my current employers; I wasn’t involved in that particular contract.
I thought about filling the KC survey it in, but there are no options available that disagree with the KC’s position, only whether you agree with them strongly, or rabidly. No doubt the KC will spin the results of this survey to show how much support they have for opposing the Dog Control Order.
The Kennel Club delight in quoting from a letter from Natural England, who have not provided specific support for the Corporation of London’s proposals for Dog Control Orders at Burnham Beeches, because they felt the evidence was not strong enough. Of course the Kennel Club have turned this round and are erroneously claiming that Natural England are not supporting the DCO on doggy grounds.
I find Natural England’s position here highly dubious. Natural England has a duty to ensure that SSSIs and Special Areas of Conservation are in favourable condition. Natural England also has a duty to promote responsible access to nature. The Stanford Principle, which puts priority for nature over access, still stands, as far as I know. Natural England appear to have forgotten about this though.
NE has cosyed up to the Kennel Club and it appears are now frightened of upsetting them. This again illustrates the political influence the KC wield; and of course the dog-breeding fraternity are closely aligned with the hunting and shooting fraternity. Although NE is not actively supporting the introduction of DCOs at Burnham Beeches, they have introduced them to National Nature Reserves that they manage themselves, including Castle Eden Dene NNR in Newcastle.
Amazingly, Natural England does not consider the impacts of recreational behavior such as dog-walking on the condition of SSSIs or European Sites. So Burnham Beeches is still assessed as in favourable condition despite having 50 tonnes of dog poo deposited on it every year, as are many lowland heathland SSSIs where ground-nesting birds are regularly disturbed from their nests by dogs off leads. So that would explain why NE could find no evidence to support the introduction of DCO – because they are actively not looking for it!
This is typical byzantine logic.
1. NE: Let’s not look for evidence of the impact of recreation on wildlife.
2. Having not looked for it, NE hasn’t found it.
3. Not having found it, NE decide the site is in favourable condition.
4. NE is asked to support actions that will limit the impact of recreation.
5. NE says “we can’t support these proposals, as there is no evidence.”
Is Natural England running scared of the Kennel Club and their powerful political friends?
One of the opponents of the Corporation of London’s proposals is Alex Deane. Deane is Head of Public Affairs at Uber lobbyists Weber Shandwick. He was David Cameron’s first chief of staff, was Director of Big Brother Watch – an offshoot of the Tax Payers Alliance, which has been widely regarded as an Astroturf outfit; and is a Common Councilman of the City of London. This means he has been elected as a politician in the City. The City is a very odd place from a democratic perspective, because only a very small number of people can vote in Council elections; Deane was voted in by 236 votes, his opponent got 221. Uniquely, in the City residents (are very few) have votes but so do businesses, the number of votes available dependent on the size of the company.
Deane opposed the DCO proposal from the very beginning, from within the City. He has offered to help the Kennel Club fight the proposal, and we can assume that he is doing exactly that. Expect to see questions in Parliament and a lot more besides – no doubt there will be much lobbying in the background to see of this proposal.
Although all this is happening in a leafy corner of South Buckinghamshire, the ramifications are far wider. If the KC is successful in persuading the Corporation not to introduce the Dog Control Order, this will send a strong message out to other local authorities and statutory bodies, that they will not be able to restrict the activities of the dog-walking public through regulatory means. And once again a powerful politically connected vested interest will hold sway over the rights of society to protect public social and environmental goods such as nature, or even just enjoying a walk on a nature reserve or in the countryside – without a dog.
But there is an alternative. If dog walkers want to exercise their dogs off-lead and not pick up their poo, why don’t they band together and buy land where they can do what they like? Yesterday we went for a walk and I saw a field specifically set aside for dog-walkers staying at the local holiday park.
Highlands Park Dog Meadow ((c) Miles King)
It is managed as a hay meadow with paths around the edge kept mown short. Other people can use it, on the understanding that it is there primarily for dog-walkers. Now there is still plenty of dog poo on the surrounding network of paths, including the coast path, but the holiday park is doing its best to cater for its dog-walkers. I’m not suggesting dog-walkers shouldnt be able to use public spaces or private land, but if they do, then they must abide by the law and show respect for other users, by picking up all their dog poo and keeping their dogs under close control.