The impact of dogs on nature and what we can do about it
Dogs are so much part of our daily lives that we may not realise that they have a significant impact on nature. But with around 8.7 million dogs in the UK, it’s inevitable that they are going to affect the environment.
Impact of dogs on the environment
15 000 sheep die each year in the UK from dog attacks.
UK dog population produces around 1300 tons of faeces each day. You may feel it’s all deposited in your neighbourhood if the pavements around you are like mine.
The dog population produces 6-7 million litres of urine per day.
Dog waste collection costs Local Authorities around £100 million per year.
Carbon released from the production of millions of single-use, plastic bags.
Over 100 000 tons of excrement sent to landfill, generating even more greenhouse gasses.
We take around 3.8 billion dog walks each year. Regarding health benefits for humans, this is a positive but, sadly, it also affects nature. People want to walk in the nicest areas, so they head for parks, urban wildlife sites and nature reserves. This means that their impact will be highest in areas where we are trying to protect nature.
Impacts on Ponds
The habitat most vulnerable to dogs is ponds. Most dog owners will detour past a pond on their walk, and many dogs love to splash about in the water. That churns the mud in the pond.
Muddy water is a poor environment, due to lack of light so few animals and plants can live in it.
The pond edges get eroded and all the plants worn away so that all you have left is a barren, muddy water hole.
Dogs may also spread invasive weeds from one pond to another if it gets on their fur.
Worm, tick and flea treatments on the dogs also get into the water and can kill sensitive invertebrates.
Impacts on Soil
Dog excrement and urine enrich the soil. They are essentially depositing a package of nutrient-rich fertiliser. If the site is a low nutrient environment like a heathland or wildflower meadow, it may lose some of its wildflowers and be colonised by grass due to increased nutrients in the soil.
Impacts on Land Management
Land that might benefit from grazing might not be grazed in areas where there are high numbers of dog walkers. This is due to the risk of dogs attacking the stock. Most urban green spaces aren’t grazed for this reason. Or cattle might be used for grazing rather than sheep, who do a better job, to reduce the risk of the animals being attacked.
Impacts on Wildlife
The main impacts dogs have on the countryside, though, is due to predation and/ or disturbance. We think of dogs as lovable family members, but to birds and small mammals, they look like predators. Most dogs natural instincts kick in when they see wildlife, especially if that wildlife runs away. Who doesn’t have the experience of chasing after their dog when it has spotted something or picked up an interesting scent? We may think this is harmless behaviour but wild animals react in extreme ways.
Ecologists have a concept called the landscape of fear. If animals know that a predator is common in a particular area, they will avoid the area. Even if the place has plentiful food and great nesting sites, it will be treated as a no-go zone. This pushes wild animals into more marginal places to nest and breed. The end result is smaller litters or fewer young animals making it to adulthood.
Positive actions dog walkers can take
Nobody is suggesting you stop walking your dogs. Everybody needs the exercise, and it’s a positive thing to do for both man and dog. Dog walkers are often more connected with their communities. They are more aware of what’s going on in their neighbourhoods and are the first to stand up for their local green spaces when they come under threat. We know you have no wish to cause harm, so here are some positive steps you can take to protect the environment.
Think hard before getting a dog. If you decided to adopt a dog, consider only having one. Choose a smaller breed as they will have less of an environmental impact and are unlikely to be able to injure larger livestock.
Make sure you always pick up faeces and dispose of it responsibly. Use a biodegradable bag.
Walk, rather than drive, to and from exercise areas, this will at least reduce your carbon footprint.
Keep your dog on a lead. If this feels excessive then at least keep them on a lead during March to July which is breeding season.
Never let your dog worry or chase other animals.
Keep your dog out of ponds - ask your Local Authority to provide a dedicated dog swimming/ cool off space instead.
Keep to the paths, especially during the breeding season.
Get involved with the planning and management of your favourite dog walking green space. A lot can be planned to maximise you and your dog’s enjoyment while at the same time protecting wildlife. For example, a dedicated dog running around areas that are fenced off. A zoning system where green areas are available for dogs to run in, orange areas are leads only, and red zones are dog free zones for example.
I'll end this article by saying that dogs are lovely animals. We just need to be aware that they have an impact on our environment. With a bit of knowledge and care, we can reduce that impact.
Got other ideas on what dog walkers could do? Let us know in our Facebook Group.
The Impact of Dogs in the Environment, Groome, Denton and Smith, In Practice, Issue 101.