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Managing visitors with dogs post-Covid

Logo: Stephen Jenkinson Access & Countryside Management

By Stephen Jenkinson: managing dogs in the outdoors specialist

Dog owners are passionate about the feel-good health benefits daily dog walking provides for human and canine alike.

More than ever, Covid-19 showed their tenacity in getting outside with their pets, despite threats of fixed penalty notices and being stalked by Police drones.

But how best do we as countryside professionals respond to that passion, compounded by the Covid-induced 40% increase in dog ownership?

Are dog walkers just an ever-bigger part of our problems or are they equally a key part of the solution to better managing our greenspaces?

a man putting up posters on a notice board with his border collie
NFDOG Committee Member David Bennett erects responsible dog walking posters with his border collie Duke © S Jenkinson

When I started specialising in managing dogs in the outdoors over 20 years ago, rangers often apologised for being dog owners, given the predominantly negative rhetoric from some colleagues. Today, it’s far easier to “come out of the kennel” and love dogs as well as nature; so what’s happened?

Managing the demand

In short, there’s been a significant shift towards actively managing the demand for dog walking,especially off-lead, as opposed to assuming that ever-more negative messaging and knee-jerk restrictions will reduce overall pawfall on our paths and greenspaces.

Covid-19 has highlighted the reality and benefits of this new approach. The last time dog walking was so severely curtailed occurred in 2001 due to Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). In many areas attempts were made to retain those temporary access restrictions, but that’s not happened post-Covid.

A legendary flashpoint was the New Forest, where returning dog walkers found their public-spiritedness in respecting the temporary FMD restrictions was being used to justify additional permanent restrictions.

Things got nasty with both New Forest officials and local dog walkers becoming equally entrenched. The New Forest Dog Owners Group (NFDOG) was formed to give dog walkers a more powerful and coordinated voice. It wasn’t a happy time.

K9 Firewise Patrol promotional poster, Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue and Dorset Dogs
Local dog walkers are being recruited as volunteer fire wardens to help protect heathland from devastating fires © Dorset Dogs

Dog walkers fund countryside ranger

Fast-forward 20 years, and today the 1,300 members of NFDOG are part-funding a countryside ranger, erecting responsible dog walking posters and distributing information cards to prevent ill-informed or irresponsible dog walkers getting everyone a bad name. Its mantra of “On the forest, off the lead but under control” makes it very clear the ethos is one of promoting rights and responsibilities, and not a canine free-for-all.

www.newforestdog.org.uk

A dog drinking from a water fountain on the grass with it's owner stood behind
New facilities like drinking fountains are used to encourage dog walkers to use less sensitive areas near new housing © S Jenkinson

So what’s changed?

Nationally things are still not perfect, but the New Forest shows how things can be improved by working with dog owners and understanding their motivations, like them or not. This is pivotal, as recent research tells us the most effective influences on dog walker behaviour are the actions of their peers, and not what leaflets, signs or rangers tell them. In short, making dog owners part of the solution is a key part of ensuring success.

Even for those land managers who don’t like dogs (and it’s OK not to like dogs) Government-endorsed research makes a compelling case for accommodating dog walking, as it reduces burdens on the NHS, supports rural communities through dog-friendly tourism, and aids the early reporting of rural crime.

Making dog walkers part of the solution

It’s no surprise that a spike in anti-social behaviour and heathland fires occurred in Dorset when dog walking was curtailed during Covid-19. And hence now why the award-winning Dorset Dogs mitigation project is working with Fire and Rescue Service colleagues to recruit local dog walkers into the K9 Fire Patrol scheme, to help ensure heathland fires are reported immediately by regular visitors. While walking dogs on heaths can be a problem for ground-nesting birds (depending on how, when and where it occurs), uncontrolled fires are always a problem and often devastating.

The EU Birds and Habitats Directives have also been a key factor in embracing the reality that a third of new homes will contain a dog. Rather than trying to supress the consequential demand for daily dog walking, mitigation planning now ensures developers provide extensive and predominantly off-lead, dog-friendly greenspaces  near new housing to minimise any adverse impacts on nearby sensitive species and habitats.


Dog walking: what we’ve learned in the last 20 years

  • Dog walking is one of the top two factors leading to healthy, active lifestyles.
  • Pet ownership and in particular dog walking saves the NHS £2.5 billion each year.
  • Dogs are taken on half of all visits to the outdoors.
  • There’s a dog in around a third of all UK homes.
  • The average daily dog walk takes one hour and is 2.6 km long.
  • Off-lead exercise without causing problems is sought by around 90% of dog walkers.
  • Banning dog walking or off-lead exercise completely can often just displace problems to somewhere else.
  • 95% of dog walkers will accept some access restrictions if they are given other accessible options.

England Coast Path

A wooden signpost on a beach with blue sky and sea in the background
The England Coast Path is designed to minimise conflict using NE’s Least Restrictive approach to restrictions on visitors with dogs © S Jenkinson

This more enlightened approach is also embedded in Natural England’s delivery of the England Coast Path (ECP) and associated spreading room, which gives a right of access on foot to England’s 3,000 miles of coastline.

www.nationaltrail.co.uk

Rather than adopting the national dog bans and on-lead restrictions imposed when Open Access rights were granted some 20 years ago across areas of mountain, moor, heath and downland, the ECP has designed-out conflict from the start. Where restrictions on dogs are needed, they are imposed on a case-by-case, evidential basis for the minimum extent possible. This ethos is key to ensuring that messaging about dog restrictions has maximum credibility and thus the highest compliance where restrictions really are needed.

A better way forward for all

So as we come out of Covid-19, we can take heart that managing the demand for daily dog walking, and seeing dog walkers as part of the solution to irresponsible behaviour, is leading us along a more effective and pleasant path for people, their dogs, and nature.

About the author

Stephen Jenkinson works across the UK as a specialist advisor, auditor and trainer on influencing dog walker behaviour for clients including: Natural England, Keep Britain Tidy, Forestry and Land Scotland, wildlife trusts, local authorities and private landowners. For more information: see www.linkedin.com/in/sjacm or email steve@sjacm.co.uk

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Posted On: 14/06/2022

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