Melissa Harrison on dogs and nature reserves

Nothing divides wildlife lovers more than pet ownership, but Melissa Harrison thinks banning dogs from nature reserves is missing the point.

Melissa Harrison and her dog Scout. © Penny Dixie

Nobody is more irritated by irresponsible dog owners than responsible ones. You invest all that effort, money and time into training a dog not to jump up, and to come to your call; you carry knotted bags around for hours in search of a bin – and then your hard work is ruined by idiots who let their dogs off around livestock or ground-nesting birds, chuck bagged poo into the undergrowth, or leave it dangling from trees. If I can behave responsibly, you think to yourself, why the hell can’t you?

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Just as there are many people who drop litter, there are plenty of dog owners who don’t consider the impact of their pet on the environment – and, as a result, some feel that dogs should be barred from some of the country’s most beautiful and wildlife-rich spots, including nature reserves. I’ve asked myself whether they have a point.

Years ago I had a cat, and while I knew, of course, that he visited other people’s gardens, it didn’t really strike me as a problem – until I got a garden and, cat-less, saw the situation from the other side of the fence. Suddenly it seemed bizarre that I was expected to tolerate other people’s animals climbing in uninvited, defecating in my flowerbeds and killing ‘my’ garden birds.

We pet-owners need to recognise that our perspective is highly partisan. We love our animals, we enjoy seeing them doing the things that make them happy – and love makes us blind.

Yet I was sad when, on a visit to a new reserve that hadn’t yet opened, I was told that dogs would be banned year-round. Dog owners make up a vast proportion of the people who regularly visit parks and green spaces, and because of this are more likely than the general population to be lovers of the outdoors.

Some reserves allow dogs only if they are on a lead. © David Aaron Troy/Getty
Some reserves allow dogs only if they are on a lead. © David Aaron Troy/Getty

This is a constituency that’s outdoors daily, and in all weathers – something that for me and many others has had a transformative effect on our lives. Dog owners’ sheer level of contact with nature puts them first in line to be champions of it: to campaign for its protection, to fight against its loss.

Sure, you might say; they can walk their dogs elsewhere and still visit a reserve without them – but that’s just not how it works. You want to enjoy a walk, and you want your dog to be with you; you’ll go somewhere else rather than do two walks. Banning dogs might deal with the problems a few irresponsible owners cause, but it will also exclude a lot of highly engaged, committed outdoor types – and any children they might have, too. And then an opportunity for education and behavioural change is lost.

In an ideal world, all pet owners would have to undergo training, as would the animals in their charge. And in an ideal world nobody would drop litter, pick rare wildflowers, light fires, disturb sensitive habitats, picnic where they’re not allowed, tuck used nappies under bushes, discard energy gel wrappers on runs, leave fishing lines in streams, play loud music or clog up narrow country lanes with their cars. But this isn’t an ideal world, and it never will be. The sad fact is that we humans are a messy and self-regarding bunch.

Melissa Harrison and her dog Scout. © Penny Dixie
Melissa Harrison and her dog Scout. © Penny Dixie

Our ongoing loss of contact with nature is worrying: not just because it’s bad for us as individuals, but because it lies behind a lot of the environmental harm we cause. If we’re to counter it we have to accept a certain level of impact, whether that’s litter or the effect of footfall.

That’s not to say we should shrug when, for example, dogs worry livestock – far from it. In fact, as well as better education, penalties for owners should be increased. But shutting out the 26 per cent of people in the UK who own a dog is short-sighted, and runs counter to the far more pressing project of getting more of us outdoors.

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Melissa Harrison is a nature writer and novelist. Her new book All Among the Barley (Bloomsbury, £14.99) was published in August.