Opinion: Talking about dogs-and-wildlife link on SSSI heathland

We have introduced six of our Sussex cows onto the heathland at home.

It was a big step because, managed through Nofence collars, they will become ecological engineers, browsing scrub and trampling bracken to restore the mosaic of heathy habitats.

I know six cows doesn’t sound groundbreaking, but this heathland site of special scientific interest (SSSI), with free car parks and open access, also happens to be one of the most popular dog-walking spots in our corner of Surrey.

See also: Molly Biddell – bring the future change-makers into farming

About the author

Molly Biddell
Molly Biddell works on her family’s farm in Surrey, in tandem with her role as head of natural capital at Knepp Estate. She previously spent time working in a research team for a rural consultancy firm, after graduating from Cambridge with a geography degree. 
Read more articles by Molly Biddell

Having hosted multiple community drop-ins to engage people in our new nature restoration project, I can conclude that we are a nation of dog fanatics. Almost everyone we have spoken to is a dog walker.

Following the pandemic-pooch-purchase spree, the UK is now home to 13 million hounds – one dog for every five humans. We spend £10bn every year on our dogs, £3bn more than the UK’s total income from farming in 2022.

I always assumed that because I love a dog walk, I am automatically a nature lover.

What I hadn’t thought about was just how detrimental dogs can be to ecosystems – disturbing ground-nesting animals, polluting soils and eutrophicating watercourses with their poo, and killing wildlife with their flea treatment.

Not to mention the rise in dog attacks on livestock (and humans) and the pretty grim issue of neosporosis causing abortions in cows.

Lecturing people on how to walk their dogs doesn’t go down well (of course everyone’s own dog is perfect), so I’ve been erring on the side of education to enable informed decisions.

It’s been fascinating understanding how people view themselves (and their dogs) in relation to nature.

Shifting the focus so people see themselves as nature lovers with dogs rather than simply dog walkers is the ultimate goal.

Enabling access to green space is super important for us as a rural business in a heavily populated area.

Honest conversations about tensions between dogs, humans, and wildlife are not easy to have, but awareness is key to creating behaviour change.

It turns out I can talk quite passionately about the problems of dog poo – a new one for the CV.