The ground-nesting birds of our parish are facing a new threat.
It’s bad enough their breeding areas are constantly under attack from the air by buzzards (since they re-emerged in about 1988) and the red kites (about 2004), which wheel lazily over the open fields, diving effortlessly down to hoover helpless chicks.
They’re suffering greatly at the voracious jaws of badgers and foxes, which roam the fields nightly and in ever larger numbers, safe in the knowledge that their cuddliness makes them immune from suspicion or retribution.
The new threat comes in the form of a white van full of dogs. Now, I know what you’re thinking: a dodgy Transit, some burly gentlemen with lifelong experience of doing remarkably reasonable Tarmac quotes, and two or three lurchers.
Charlie Flindt is a tenant of the National Trust, farming 380ha in Hampshire
No, not this time. The white van I’m talking about is probably a car-based version.
Its driver is, as a rule, a perky young lady in fell-running boots, and the dogs consist of a pack of about eight – maybe more – of all shapes and sizes.
The clue to what’s going on can be found in the fact the van isn’t completely white; it has been sign-written, and on the side is a name – often a cute pun involving paws, tails or noses. You get the idea. Yes, the professional dog walker has arrived.
The van gets parked somewhere roadside in the middle of the farm. Out pour the dogs. Some go on leads, some don’t. And off they go, down the footpath – or some of them do. The rest range merrily over the nearby fields.
This is a brand new canine phenomenon, a result of the nation’s fetish for dog ownership.
It matters not that you hardly spend any time at home, working absurdly long hours to afford your lovely house in the country; you simply must have that sweet cocker or springer – even better, a rescue one.
The new children
And getting a pro dog walker to give it a run out is no different to sending the children off to school, is it? And dogs are indeed the new children.
The wildlife here has the added misfortune to be nesting on National Trust land, which is interpreted by many as “belonging to all, to do with as they will”.
The trust’s publicity for the estate may not have helped, being a curious mix of Marx and Disney. And it hasn’t helped that dogs are becoming less and less welcome in public parks, so walkers have to look elsewhere.
I’ve tried having a friendly chat with our most frequent visitor, pointing out how wildlife organisations that are usually unable to share the same room all agree on the dangers posed by dogs to ground-nesting birds, but trying to get the message across is hard against a background of canine tumult, and the debate always ends with the standard angry assertion that “I’m not doing any harm!”
In go the earphones and the whole team barks and tsss-tss-tsses its way down Dark Lane.
So the skylarks and lapwings – the real ones, not the Chris Packham ones – will continue to battle against foe from the air, from nearby setts and dens, and from cutely painted Astra vans.
And all the time, the blame for their decline will be laid firmly at farming’s door.
I would rename myself Charlie Snuggly Wuffly Fluffyflindt if I thought it would help. It might help me, but it won’t save the birds.