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Written by George Fisher

Image for article WILDLIFE WATCH

As responsible dog owners it is important that we don’t allow our dogs to disturb wildlife, if nothing more than to protect our freedom to walk our dogs off lead and to protect our dog’s safety.

It is estimated that up to 20% of dogs in the countryside are running out of control. These dogs can injure themselves by chasing birds over cliffs, hurtling across roads to chase deer, or they could even be shot by landowners for chasing livestock. Clearly it is just as important to keep an eye on the wildlife when outdoors as well as your dog to prevent accidents.

To reduce the level of disturbance by dogs, the Countryside Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 requires that dogs that are not on rights of way when crossing Access Land are kept on leads between 1 March and 31 July, which is during lambing time and the bird breeding season, and they must also be kept on a lead all year round near farm animals. On rights of way, including those that cross Access Land, dogs need to be under effective control which means being on lead or being in sight while the owner is confident it will return promptly on command.

In some areas there are additional restrictions; for example on the coast there may also be local restrictions requiring dogs to be kept on a short lead during the bird breeding season, and to prevent disturbance to flocks of resting and feeding birds during other times of year.

Clearly if we dog owners want to allow our dogs to go off lead and enjoy themselves, then we need to prevent them from disturbing wildlife. Otherwise we risk losing the freedom to roam with dogs that we currently enjoy.

So it is important to keep an eye out for wild animals, which is fun anyway, and carefully watch your dog’s reaction. Dogs often chase rabbits, squirrels and birds because they enjoy it. Once they have a taste they will keep doing it, and all too soon the dog is chasing everything that moves. 

A dog chasing a rabbit through a field of sheep is still disturbing sheep, and if the landowner sees this take place then the dog still risks being shot. Some dogs will follow scent along the ground, and if that leads to a moving animal the dog assumes the best way to find something to chase is to find a scent to follow. The result can be the dog just chasing a scent through a field but appearing to be chasing sheep - an onlooker will just see sheep hurtling away.

Sadly many dogs also chase birds so enthusiastically that they chase them over cliffs. In this situation the dog is just doing what it has enjoyed and perhaps been encouraged to do in areas further away from cliffs, but in the ‘thrill of the chase’ it doesn’t expect the ground to disappear from beneath its feet.

Dogs can be prevented from disturbing or chasing wildlife through management, such as keeping them on lead or on a training line, or through training the dog more effectively. Very often all that is needed is to teach the dog to chase a toy that you control, and to reward the dog for coming back when called.

It's also a great idea just to sit and watch wildlife with the dog being rewarded for sitting with you. In fact dogs are so good at spotting wildlife that once they learn to sit rather than chase you’ll be surprised at how much wildlife they identify for you to watch.

Cover photo: Roger Hiley,