Hidden away in my newspaper, behind the seemingly endless columns revealing some interesting correspondence about dog walkers being attacked by cows. It highlights the problems that can occur when townies get out into the countryside and dont understand the ways of its inhabitants. As a countryman even I get nervous and so do the dogs when cows come too close on a shooting day. I make a show of bravado and wave my stick at them. I also take the precaution of sitting on a nearby fence and hoping no birds will fall among the herd. The dogs share my view. Cows are chunky animals and even if theyve been dehorned, their bulk alone makes them a formidable opposition. Its not only dogs that stir their curiosity. Ive been pursued by them while on a horse as well.
A cow can look after itself when faced with a dog, but what of other less fortunate creatures? The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has been calling for tougher measures to make owners keep their dogs under control, especially between March and the end of July, when ground-nesting birds are at their most vulnerable. Thats not only gamebirds but other upland birds, too. The law on public access in Scotland differs somewhat from that in England and Wales, but on both sides of the Border you are supposed to keep your dog on a lead or under close control when in the presence of farm stock and nesting birds. The lead should be less than two metres long, which rules out those elasticated things beloved by many owners of unruly dogs. Close control means that a dog must be walking to heel and obedient to your commands. That rules out most dogs other than a properly trained gundog or sheepdog.
The real problem is public ignorance. There seems to be a general assumption that you can go anywhere and do anything you like nowadays. That, at least, is what the people who walk past the No Public Right of Way sign at the entrance to our sailing club think. Many are incensed when politely asked to leave the clubs property and return to the footpath. Its at least as bad in areas to which the public does have legitimate access. Numerous gamekeepers have told me of the abuse they get when asking people to behave responsibly in the countryside. Whether its ignorance or arrogance, it is difficult to know. Im inclined to suspect it is more of the latter than the former.
The problem is that most of these codes are voluntary and lack teeth. It is true that in certain circumstance a farmer can shoot a dog that is worrying his stock, but get it wrong and there can be trouble. No such law protects the ground-nesting bird. You can be asked to keep your dog under control, but all too often the lead goes on only to be taken off once the keeper is out of sight. Persistent abuse of the code can only be dealt with by interdict, which is a cumbersome, expensive and unreliable remedy. The law in England and Wales is slightly better in that open access areas can be closed at critical times of the year, but the need for better enforcement remains.
I sympathise with people who want to take their dogs for a walk. I need somewhere to exercise and train dogs myself, and nobody is suggesting the responsible dog walker should be penalised. Were fortunate in having National Trust land nearby. It has a heavy density of walkers and a network of permitted paths as well as public ones. Theres no wood and hardly a hedge that doesnt have the public walking all over it. Ground nesters dont stand much of a chance, but maybe that doesnt matter as its not the sort of place endangered waders would nest anyway. The buzzards, crows and magpies do well because they nest off the ground. All this makes it unsuitable for shooting, too. One reason for its popularity is its proximity to the nearby town and its car park. The provision of such facilities in key areas can reduce the pressure on more vulnerable parts of the countryside. Maybe sterile ground such as that should form part of the solution.
BASC and the SGA do not entirely see eye to eye over this matter. BASC sees education as the way forward and points out that if you dont exercise your rights in accordance with the code you forfeit them. The SGA would like the legislation to have more of a bite. The problem is that education, though wholly praiseworthy, requires first that people educate themselves and then that they adhere to some sort of moral philosophy of what is right and reasonable.
Recent antics in Westminster have shown all too clearly what happens when people lose their moral compass, so maybe a tougher line is needed to stop dogs from disturbing wildlife in key access areas. Im not keen on further legislation but I dont like toothless codes either.