Your questions on dog walking
What is the Special Protection Area and can I walk my dog there?
The Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area is more than 8,000 hectares of heathland across Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire. The areas included were chosen because woodlark, Dartford warbler and nightjar choose to breed here every year. These protected birds are particularly vulnerable because they nest on or near the ground. The most sensitive period, when the birds are nesting, is March to September.
Dogs are always welcome on the Special Protection Area, but it’s very important to keep to paths and keep dogs out of vegetation during the nesting season March to September.
How can I help protect the heaths?
The best way to help is to follow the Good dog guide. Everyone can help simply by keeping to main paths and keeping dogs out of vegetation. This reduces the risk of disturbing the rare birds that nest on the ground from March to September. Throwing a stick or ball down the track, rather than into the vegetation, is a great way to help.
How are birds vulnerable?
Ground-nesting birds sometimes nest very close to paths. If your dog goes into the vegetation it may flush a bird from the nest, leaving eggs or chicks exposed and vulnerable to chilling or to attack from predators. Your dog might also stop adults feeding or taking food to their young, or cause birds to abandon a good nesting site.
What are the long-term consequences of not taking care of the heaths?
Put simply, if the birds decline in numbers because of disturbance, the heathland may eventually lose its special legal protection. Once it’s gone, permissions for housing and other development may even be granted. By spreading the word, and working together, we can keep these precious open spaces, for ourselves and for the wildlife.
My dog isn’t interested in the birds, so is there a problem?
We can’t be certain where the nests are, sometimes they’re near to main paths and it’s easy for dogs to stray too near to them. Your dog may accidentally flush a bird off its nest. This leaves chicks and eggs on the ground, vulnerable to being taken by a predator. We’d really appreciate your help in setting a good example. We do have a booklet listing alternative places to walk. Perhaps you could try them and see what you think?
My dog is very good and generally stays on the path…
That’s great, thanks for being a responsible dog owner, it’s great that you’re setting a good example. Do bear in mind that it takes very little to disturb the birds and cause them to fly off the nest, leaving chicks vulnerable. You may be talking to a friend or acquaintance, and your dog might get bored and wander off without you noticing. It happens so easily, even to the best of us.
What about the cattle, don’t they disturb the birds?
Not in the same way. Livestock move slowly and will rarely startle birds. Livestock grazing is a vital part of heathland management – by helping to keep scrub and tall grasses down, they improve the habitat for rare wildlife. Because livestock are here for a long period of time, the ground-nesting birds quickly become accustomed to their presence, whereas a dog’s quick movements can take them by surprise. Birds don’t generally perceive livestock as predators.
What about foxes and birds of prey taking the birds?
Yes, this is an issue, but the large number of visiting dogs is probably the greater threat. Foxes and birds of prey are naturally occurring, we can’t change that, but we can all be responsible dog walkers. Please keep to main paths during the nesting season March to September. Dogs that rush into the heather can flush out the birds, leaving nests vulnerable to attack.
What bins can I use?
Any bin will do, it doesn’t have to be a poo bin. Bagged dog poo can go in with general waste.
Why should I pick up my dog’s poo when the cattle create such a mess?
Livestock waste is organic, breaks down quickly and tends to be spread out across an area, so it doesn’t enrich localised patches. Dog waste, however, tends to be concentrated along main paths, especially near car parks, and over time it enriches the soil by adding unwanted nutrients. Heathland soil is characteristically poor in nutrients, allowing the heather to thrive. Once the soil is enriched, heather is outcompeted by more thuggish plants, like grasses, and the habitat changes.
Dog poo is also potentially harmful to people and children. It can cause diseases such as toxocariasis, which can cause blindness in humans. Neospora is a parasite that can cause neurological problems in dogs, especially puppies. It’s spread in the faeces of dogs that have eaten infected placental/foetal material. Livestock can pick it up by eating grass contaminated with spores, and it’s especially harmful to livestock because it can cause abortions. Once infected with neospora, an animal is infected for life.
Also, worming treatments in dog poo are damaging to the invertebrates found on the heathland. Livestock poo is a good home to many invertebrate species – e.g. minotaur beetle, a large round dung beetle found on sandy heathland.
If you’ve ever stepped in dog poo, you’ll know how horrible it is. It’s hard to remove, let alone the terrible smell. We want heathland to be a pleasant and safe place to walk for everyone.
I’ve been walking here for years, why should I change my pattern?
That’s great and we appreciate that it isn’t easy to change the habits of a lifetime. However, we’re only suggesting varying your routine sometimes, to ease the growing pressure on heathland. We can give you a copy of ‘Greenspace on your doorstep’, a booklet full of ideas for walks where you can let your dog off the lead and there are no protected birds. Many of these walks have good parking, dog poo bins and surfaced paths.
Can you tell me more about ticks?
Ticks are small parasites that can attach themselves to dogs and humans. They’re around all year, but more common in the spring and summer. They’re found in vegetation and attach themselves as you brush past. You do need to check yourself when you’ve been walking in the countryside, particularly if you’re wearing shorts and short sleeves. Check your dog too. If you find one, use a proper tick remover if possible and follow the instructions.
As well as being unpleasant, ticks carry Lyme disease, which requires medical treatment. If you’ve been bitten, keep an eye out for a circular, red rash and flu-like symptoms. Tell your doctor you’ve been bitten by a tick.