Pictures: Why city dog walkers need to take more responsibility
Conservationists and council officers speak out over Sheffield's messy issue.
“I understand you want to hear about dog faeces?” said a volunteer from the Steel Valley Project conservation charity, not using those precise words.
“My colleague was strimming the side of the path and hit a big pile of the stuff in the long grass. It went all over her face mask and through her visor. She wasn’t pleased.”
Sheffield Council woodland officer Jon Dallow used the nappy analogy. “If you had a baby with you on your walk, you wouldn’t empty its nappy at the side of the path, or put it in a bag and hang it in a tree.
“So if you’re a dog walker, please, please, pick up your droppings and take them home.”
“We are dog friendly in Sheffield,” said Sheffield Council countryside manager Dave Aspinall.
“We absolutely support people getting active, enjoying our countryside with their dogs.
“But with that comes responsibilities.”
In places like Ecclesall Woods, the level of dog faeces is actually affecting the soil balance near some paths, discouraging some ancient woodland plants while boosting growth of traditional ‘weeds’ like nettles, which grow vigorously after fertilisation with nitrogen excreted by dogs.
The Forestry Commission advice to flick excrement off forest paths with a stick doesn’t work in busy city woodlands.
“We’d rather you take it home or put it in the nearest litter bin,” said Dave.
“We encourage families and children to explore our woodlands, and we certainly don’t want children picking up dog mess given the risk of Toxicara.”
It costs around £50,000 a year for the council to deal with the city’s dog bins, Dave said, and with tightening resources, perhaps dog owners should be encouraged to take their excrement home to their own domestic bins, from where it will be incinerated.
Control is also an issue: in spring and summer particularly, dogs off leads can attack livestock, and disturb and kill chicks of ground nesting birds like curlew or nightjars on local moors. Dogs foraging in water courses have also contributed to the decline of water voles in places like Redmires and Burbage.
The boom in professional dog walking services has led the council to look into a licensing scheme, as used by other councils. Dave said there are barriers to introducing a scheme for Sheffield at present, but with at least 40 professional dog walkers in the city, he’d like to see a code of conduct to guide them and their customers.
Dave’s current advice to dog walking professionals is to limit the number of dogs per walker to five, take away all their excrement, ensure they can keep all their dogs under close control (on a lead on spring and summer moorland) and to protect livestock and wildlife.
Councillor Mary Lea, cabinet member for culture parks and leisure at SCC said: “I would appeal to all dog walkers, professionals and owners, to show responsibility when using our parks, woodland and open spaces. Dog mess has such an adverse effect – on our parks’ brilliant reputation, on the environment, and on council finances.”
Professional dog walker Rebecca Allison has been running her ‘Pawsitive Walks’ service in Sheffield for seven years, and would support a monitored licensing scheme. Bad practice by some dog walkers gives responsible professionals a bad name, she said.
“I’ve often seen people with more than six dogs, and to me that’s just an accident waiting to happen. I started counting the dogs with one walker and assistant, and lost count at sixteen.
“All you need is for one of those dogs to run into a field with some lambs, then what are you going to do?”
And keeping track of where more than a handful of dogs are defecating is impossible, she added.
Rebecca says customers should ask their dog walkers some key questions.
“Ask to see their public liability insurance, their references, and their client information sheets,” she said. “Look at their transport, ask how they operate, how many dogs they take, and ask about faeces.”
She added pointedly: “In my opinion, if you can’t pick up the poo, don’t have a dog.”