No, not the Devil’s infamous wisht hounds. I’m referring to something much worse – and very real – that is happening out on the moors today. Livestock is being mauled and some left for dead. There are notices nailed to fences and gates all around Dartmoor that warn us all. You have almost certainly walked past many; hopefully most of you will have read them. They state that between the 1 March and 31 July dogs must be kept under close control, and preferably on a lead. Many assume this is just for the benefit of Dartmoor’s free-ranging livestock, while others interpret these signs as simply guidelines. While the message seems clear enough to me, there are plenty of grey areas that can be varyingly interpreted by users of the moor.
Some frustrated commoners have taken to adding their own graphic and personal messages, and a few years ago laminated pictures of cattle with their noses hanging off and lacerated sheep and horses appeared. A far cry from the cartoon dog that smiles from the pages of the ‘Paws on Dartmoor’, the guidance for dog walkers leaflet that also appears on the Dartmoor National Park website.
What these messages and signs illustrate to me is a growing rural problem, and one which could so easily be avoided with a little sensitivity and awareness. Let me explain it from my own (naturalist’s) perspective.
When we go for a stroll, it’s a fact that we have a rolling, invisible sphere of influence on all the life forms that surround us, especially those with a well-developed central nervous system. Walk quietly, calmly and slowly through the landscape and your sphere of influence shrinks. You will also tend to notice the details and the finer nuances of the world around you, and this is when you see stuff happening.
This increased ability to notice things is partly down to your lower speed: you’ve just given your senses more time to take it all in. You also represent less of a threat, you make less noise and are able to adjust to the unfolding picture around you: a Stoat moving its kits makes you pause, enabling you to drink in the furry wonder of it all. A Pied Flycatcher snatching caterpillars from bursting Oak buds: you stop, it stops, and after a breathless moment of mutual scrutiny, its assessment of your threat level enables it to continue feeding. Such trust gives you an insight into an intimate everyday springtime process.
Add a dog on a lead and your combined sphere expands in direct proportion to the length of the rope you give it. Take that leash away and you have a sphere of influence – or disturbance, for want of another word – limited only by the boundaries of the dog’s curiosity and your determination to discipline it.
A dog is nothing but a domesticated wolf (although, granted, many will insist that there is more to this relationship). However, as far as every warm-blooded (and a few cold-blooded) creatures out on the moor, it is nothing more or less. It may be hard to believe, but a harmless yellow Retriever bounding through the brash pushes all the inherent deeply programmed fight or flight buttons in the small brains of the birds, mammals and reptiles it encounters, and they will act accordingly.
An illustration of this and the incognisant influence our pets often have on the world around us came last spring as I was taking a bit of post-lunch meditation. Having finished my sandwiches I lay back, enjoying the feel of the spring sun on my face for a brief moment before continuing my field work. I became aware of a sense of distress in the air, and for a moment couldn’t place the origin of my unease. Then I focused in on the scolding of a Wren – a commonly heard alarm call. It was probably several hundred metres away; then closer to me some Meadow Pipits sounded off, then the Stonechats with their distinctive alarm – a short rising whistle, followed by a chack or chat, like a couple of flints being pounded together in the palm of a hand. Then closer still came Reed Bunting, Wheatear, Ring Ouzel and lastly the dry football-rattle of Mistle Thrush. An audible wave of ornithological distress was rolling down the valley, plotting to my ear the progress of a predator. Looking up I hoped to see a bird of prey, maybe a Buzzard, Sparrowhawk or even a Hobby. But instead I saw a hound – a Spaniel to be precise. Its face appeared for a second or two, a panting visage framed by tussocks of moor grass, ears tangled with scraps of bramble and bracken, pink tongue lolling before it bounded off again. Its owner’s futile whistles followed, far away in the distance.
While this sounds like an extreme case, sadly it isn’t. It happens with regularity on all the study sites I have frequented on the moors at this time of the year and while many moorland uses assume they are on their own solitary rambles, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Landscapes have footpaths or lines of desire which we all instinctively use and the birds that nest along them can in some places experience disturbance like this several times an hour on a good walking day and this impact adds up.
Any bird you hear singing on a moorland spring day nests on the ground, and if not actually on it certainly within the muzzle reach of any dog. Also that dog needn’t be hunting or directly looking to chase. Its simple, curious, boundless presence is enough to flush an incubating female from a nest. Where’s the harm in that, you may think – surely it will return? – and, inevitably, it will. But a factor often overlooked is that a bird flushed from a nest makes a distress call to warn conspecifics (members of the same species) of the potential ‘wolf’ in the neighbourhood. While it does this a host of other natural opportunists – the real predators of the moor – are also listening and looking out for fodder for their own begging broods. The corvids (members of the crow family, including Jackdaws, Ravens and Magpies) as well as Stoats, Weasel and Fox are all tuned into precisely these alarm calls. A chatting chat is as good as a flashing neon arrow to these sharp-eyed moorland folk, and almost as soon as you’ve passed on they will be down, their attention to the nest piqued by your sphere of influence.
While I’ve focused very much on my area of direct knowledge and experience the impact of dogs on the moor has another serious and real side. The worrying of livestock is another issue and is much more real and problematic than even I realised. There were 74 reported cases of serious livestock hassling by dogs on Dartmoor last year alone, and with more users of the National Park this is on the increase. This is not just an inconvenience; it can cause all manner of suffering, from the obvious injuries of a direct attack, the stress of being hounded (in one case last year for over a mile) and the knock on risks of stillbirth and aborted foetuses. As well as these obvious animal welfare issues there is also the financial loss incurred by the farmer.
In a world where many natural or semi-natural habitats such as the moorland are under all manner of other pressures from atmospheric nitrification, climate change and changes in agricultural practice, this extra disturbance factor is just one more nail towards closing the coffin on some of our most enigmatic moorland species.
The coming months are the most sensitive time for almost all wildlife and livestock on the moor, so please don’t see the signs mentioned at the start of this article as yet another infringement on your human rights by a few paper pushers. It is a criminal offence to let your dog worry any livestock on the moor and it also gives the livestock or landowner the right to shoot any offending pet (and this does happen). It is also breaking the law to disturb any wild bird on the nest, and that includes accidentally with a dog.
While this is a serious issue let’s see past the red tape and try to understand the reasoning and need for such laws and notices. They are there to allow the continued flourishing of the processes and species that make this place such a pleasure to experience.
With the numbers of Dartmoor visitors – including dog walkers – on the increase, and a drive to increase accessibility for all, this has to come with a new responsibility and sense of awareness of our own ecological impacts. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves killing the golden goose and losing the things that make and shape Dartmoor.
If you find any distressed livestock on the moor or witness any livestock being chased or worried, you can call and report it to the Livestock Protection Society officer Karla McKechnie on 07873 587561… it’s worth adding this number to your mobile phonebook.
NB - This article was originally published in the excellent Dartmoor Magazine https://www.dartmoormagazine.co.uk/ for which I regularly write a natural history column - the issued covered are relevant to pretty much any open space, park, nature reserve.