Suffolk nature reserve no longer dogged by disturbance
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Canine conflicts resolved on Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Carlton Marshes
The presence of dogs on nature reserves has long been a bone of contention - and often of conflict - with walkies and wildlife frequently regarded as being incompatible.
The damaging disturbance caused by canine capers has been blamed for many instances of losses that nature can ill-afford, with ground-nesting birds being especially vulnerable to persistent pounding paws.
An innovative project on a high-profile and immensely significant Suffolk nature reserve, however, has shown that a balance can be struck on some such sites and, with a little dog-friendly diplomacy, pet pooches’ requirements and nature’s needs can happily co-exist.
Nature conservation consultant Phil Brown, who runs the Share - With Care consultancy, has recently concluded his involvement with a pilot scheme he set up in 2014 at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Carlton Marshes nature reserve, near Lowestoft, in partnership with the trust and the Lowestoft-based Happy Paws Dog Training Society. The project, which involves society members volunteering as “dog ambassadors” to help resolve dog disturbance and fouling issues on the popular, 627-acre marshland reserve, has been declared a major success by its partners. It has gained widespread media attention - including being featured on the BBC’s flagship Countryfile programme in May last year - and now there are high hopes that similar partnerships can rolled out on at least some nature reserves where conflicts can exist.
Mr Brown, of Dalham, near Newmarket, said Carlton Marshes was on the doorstep of a well-populated urban area, attracting about 50,000 visitors a year, about 40% of whom were dog-walkers. The reserve, its wildlife and grazing cattle on the site had long suffered from dog disturbance issues. In 2014, voluntary trust warden Peter Underdown carried out the unenviable task of “dog poo-picking” and recorded and disposed of 35kg of it from around the reserve’s main car park and education area.
Meticulously detailed data had been kept throughout the scheme, amassing records of such factors as fouling, disturbance and interaction with dog owners, said Mr Brown. In April last year Waveney District Council had enacted a Public Space Protection Order that related to dogs on the site, adding an extra layer of provision, but the ambassadors’ “dialogue” with the dog-owning community since they began patrols in 2015 had proved “pivotal” in promoting responsible and sensitive dog behaviour on the reserve.
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Data from the project had shown that since December 2015 the number of dogs walked on the site had actually increased by about 25% whereas the amount of dog waste collected had fallen by the same amount, said Mr Brown. Reported incidents had fallen by 32% and the number of dog owners spoken to by ambassadors had fallen by 74% as behaviour had improved.
“The positive response of nature has been significant too,” he said. In 2015 133 bird breeding territories had been recorded, increasing to 176 in 2015 and 235 last year.
“There has been some habitat improvement on the reserve that was also associated with these increases but we think about one-third of the increase can be attributed to the scheme, which we think is a pretty healthy vindication of the scheme in general, with improved behaviour, reduced dog-fouling and a distinct bird bonus,” said Mr Brown.
Happy Paws Dog Training Society chairman Mark Willeard said: “We have about 12 ambassadors, the majority are from Happy Paws, and it has been a very positive experience all-round for us. We’ve been able to educate people as to why responsible dog behaviour is so important and how it can help the wildlife on the reserve and we will be continuing our involvement here. We’ve made lots of new members as a result of this project and we can teach them the skills they need to bring their dogs to the reserve and we can help them in general.
“It’s all about getting a balance between the use of the reserve and the impact that has on the reserve - it’s all about balancing access and conservation.”
Matt Gooch, Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Broads reserves manager, added: “The whole project has been a dialogue between different user groups and it’s resulted in the whole visitor experience being improved for everyone.”
The ambassador scheme would continue to help the reserve in the future - and would stand it in good stead for its hoped-for extension which was the aim of the trust’s £1million Broads appeal, which currently stands at about £850,000.
Its principles could also be applied to some other reserves if their characteristics were suited to such a scheme, he added.
More information about Happy Paws Dog Training Society can be found by emailing them at email@example.com