Dogs are not allowed into South Milton Ley Nature Reserve. During my research for the South Huish management plan, I collected a number of peer-reviewed articles relating to disturbance to wildlife resulting from dog walkers and their animals. Without exception, these showed an adverse effect even when dogs were on a lead.
In 2005 English Nature produced a comprehensive study of the impact of dogs on nature conservation, which found that amongst wildlife “dogs, especially those off a lead, stimulate a greater behavioural response than walkers” and also noted that “dogs flush more incubating birds than walkers without dogs, and dogs can kill well grown chicks”.
This correlates with a study produced in 2009 by the University of Hull for the Humber Nature Partnership, which revealed that dog walking caused significant disruption with free roaming (off the lead) dogs causing more disruption than any other activity on the Humber coast except for low flying jet aircraft. In 2007 an important study of woodland trails was produced by the University of New South Wales by Dr Peter Banks and Jessica Bryant, which showed that “dog walking caused a 41% reduction in the numbers of bird individuals detected and a 35% reduction in species richness compared with untreated controls.”
It has long been understood that human activity can disrupt wildlife but the study found that while humans walking alone induced some disturbance this was typically less than half that induced by dogs. A further study conducted in New Zealand by Baudains and Lloyd also confirmed that of all recreational activities that were monitored, dog walking caused the most disturbance to wildlife. The presence of dogs creates anti-predatory responses and on small nature reserves can cause a 40% reduction in bird species across the whole reserve.
Consequently, and having lost one net already this month, I was concerned to find a member of the public from the nearby camp site trying to enter the reserve with two dogs off the lead via an adjacent field. I challenged him and pointed out that he was trespassing on land owned by South West Water and that there were livestock in the field his dogs were roaming around. I also pointed out that he was about to enter one of my net rides. The conversation was amicable and, to be fair, the dogs were not running around wildly but his explanation for his presence there staggered me. Having noticed no dog signs on all the gates leading into the reserve, he had searched the perimeter to find an alternative entrance without a sign, even if that meant unchaining a gate and trespassing on private property!
Devon Birds has a right of access to the reserve via the land it had to sell to SWW when the sewage treatment works was enlarged. Hopefully, the sign I installed on the gate will deter all but the most irresponsible dog owners in the future.