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Walking in the New Forest with your dog

Walking in the New Forest with your dog

PUBLISHED ON: 13 FEBRUARY 2023

Living in, or within easy reach, of the New Forest is such a privilege. There are few places in England where we can walk, cycle or ride through such diverse, beautiful and wildlife-rich landscapes and many of us are blessed to have it all within a short walk, or drive, of our front door.

The New Forest is of course a National Park and as such the National Park Authority works to both conserve and promote the understanding and enjoyment of its very special qualities. Although one of the smallest National Parks, the New Forest is also one of the most accessible and as such it is visited by more people than any other. It can be so easy for any of us to inadvertently negatively impact the very thing that we have come to enjoy and the New Forest Code was created to help counter just this. If everyone who lives, works or plays in the New Forest follows this code the New Forest will continue to be an amazing place for future generations to visit – arguably even more amazing!

Those of us with dogs are doubly blessed to be able to walk in the New Forest and in fact, more time is spent dog walking in the National Park than all other recreational activities combined. With so many other dogs and dog walkers enjoying everything that the Forest has to offer, a walk in the Forest can be a very social activity as well as wonderful exercise and fresh air for both the dogs and their owners. We have such a wealth of choice when it comes to places to walk as well; from open heath to ancient woodland, winding streams and rivers to beaches with different sight, sound and scent discoveries to be made in each.

What’s not to like?!

BUT, it is all too easy for us to spoil that which we love, without us realising it, and that is why the New Forest Dog Walking Code has been drawn up and agreed upon by, local people, businesses and organisations. We all love our dogs and we all like to think of ourselves as responsible owners, but what does that mean in the context of being in the New Forest?

The Dog Walking Code asks us to:

 Stay safe and respect the environment
  • Carry a lead for each dog in your care.
  • All dogs must wear collars with ID tags with the owner’s name and address.
  • Park only in designated car parks, not on a verge or in a gateway.
  • Keep dogs on leads in and around car parks and alongside roads.
  • Do not allow your dog to chase or attack livestock, deer or any other wildlife.
  • Keep your distance from grazing animals, especially mothers and their young.
  • Release your dog if threatened or chased by cattle, ponies or other animals to get to safety separately.
  • Dogs must always be under effective control when on a public right of way (for example through farmland); keep them on the path and do not allow them to stray onto adjacent land.
  • Keep your dog to the main tracks when birds are nesting on the ground (usually March – August).
  • Throughout the year, avoid disturbing coastal birds by exercising your dogs away from them.
  • Keep well away from any work taking place such as forestry and pony round-ups, and observe warning signage.
  • Pick up after your dog; put bagged dog poo in a dog waste bin or litter bin, or take it home.
Be considerate to other forest users
  • Always keep all dogs under effective control; if you cannot reliably and quickly call your dog back to you and away from people or other dogs, please keep it on a lead.
  • Keep your dog from jumping up at or approaching other people, especially children, horse riders and cyclists and prevent excessive barking.
  • Keep dogs away from picnics.
  • Show respect for other dogs (especially those displaying yellow as this indicates they need space); if an approaching dog is on a lead, put yours on a lead too.
  • Consider moving aside to let other walkers, cyclists and horse riders pass.

All of this is common sense when you see it written down in black and white, but how many people walking with their dog in the Forest at the moment – or countryside generally – can, with their hand on their heart, say that they always follow this code?

The responsible dog walker will always bear in mind two key things, the first of which is to remember that their dog needs to be under effective control at all times – that means that it should always be in sight and that it should always return the instant that it is called, whether that be away from livestock, wildlife, other dogs or other people.

If out in the New Forest and not certain that a dog will come back when called, or that it will keep close to its owner on the footpath, the responsible dog walker walks their dog on the lead, particularly in key places at key times of the year. At the coast, this is during the winter to reduce disturbance to feeding and roosting wading birds. In the New Forest, it is during late winter and spring when livestock have young, when out on the open heaths during the spring and summer when ground nesting birds, including lapwing, curlew and nightjar, are nesting and caring for young chicks (they are easily disturbed and can thus be more susceptible to predation as a result), and, finally, during the autumn when the deer are rutting (displaying and mating).

By taking care to keep to the main tracks and keeping dogs close and under effective control, walkers both help care for the Forest and protect their dogs from potential hazards like adders and ticks.

The second key thing that a responsible New Forest dog walker will always remember is to pick up after their dog and dispose of the bagged waste in a bin, either back in the car park if there is one, or at home if there isn’t.

The vast majority of people will always do this if they are walking on the street or in a park and many will do so if their dog goes to the toilet on a Forest track.

Unfortunately, we know that in the New Forest, many dog walkers are more likely to “stick & flick” dog poo into the bushes, or even simply leave it, without realising just how harmful this can be to wildlife and livestock – after all, dog poo is natural isn’t it? Actually, yes – and no.

Yes, it is natural, but no, it is not natural to the New Forest.

Of course, nobody picks up after all the New Forest ponies, cows and wildlife, but one of the big differences is that those animals are recycling the nutrients that they have taken from the Forest as they feed and are simply putting it back, whereas the nutrients in a dogs food are adding nutrients from excreted dog food to the New Forest soil. If you are a gardener that probably sounds like a very positive thing, because that’s what gardeners do to grow bigger and better flowers and food, but the very special, many of them rare, plants of the New Forest have evolved to grow in its nutrient-poor soils and cannot survive when their habitat has nutrients added to it in the form of dog waste. The waste of our carnivorous pets is also very different to that of the herbivorous pony and cows: as one responsible dog walker I was speaking with remarked recently, “I wouldn’t put dog poo on my roses, so why would I leave it out here on the heather?”!

Dog poo may also harbour viruses, bacteria and parasites which can affect other dogs, grazing animals and people, even after the waste has decomposed and is no longer visible. All of these are unpleasant and some, although very rare, are extremely serious, and can, for example, lead to blindness in people, or deaths or loss of unborn young in other dogs or grazing animals like cattle.

Responsible dog owners will take steps to protect their pets from parasites by treating them with medication. There is growing evidence that the active ingredients of some wormers continue to act in the poo, killing the New Forest wildlife (beetles, worms and other invertebrates) that would otherwise help decompose the waste. Bagging and binning this dog waste helps to protect these absolutely vital, but easily overlooked animals, some of which are very rare.

Current research is also revealing that the ecological impact of not picking up after our pets might be even more complicated and far-reaching than we could have imagined: it is now known that predators like foxes feed on discarded dog waste and, because the poo of our much loved and well-fed dogs still contains much of the nutrients that that the animal has been fed, that this can even make up a significant proportion of their diet. What this means is that the fox population can be sustained at much higher levels than would be the case naturally and more foxes could mean more predation of our wildlife – including, potentially, of our vulnerable ground-nesting birds…

So, for all of these reasons, as well as the fact that nobody wants their walk or picnic marred by their walking through the stuff, the responsible dog walker will always show that they care for the New Forest by removing and binning dog waste wherever they are.

If you follow the New Forest Dog Walking Code, please display one of our dog window stickers available at New Forest Local Information Points and visitor centres – or you can order one by emailing us at enquiries@newforestnpa.gov.uk. If you employ a dog walker to exercise your dog check that they are signed up to the Professional Dog Walkers’ Charter.

Leave only pawprints! 

A New Forest National Park Authority staff member. He is wearing a hat, smiling and crouched down stroking a small dog.
People and Wildlife Ranger Jim
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