By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
There is only one thing more terrifying for a nesting bird than a person walking nearby: when that two-legged beast is joined by a four-legged companion.
A study of how ground-nesting birds are disturbed on beaches in Spain has revealed how they are almost always scared from their nests by passing off-lead dogs, but seem unperturbed by motorbikes, helicopters and low-flying planes.
Walkers accompanied by dogs flushed Kentish plovers from the foreshore nests 80% of the time when walking on paths over the beach, compared with just 12.9% of the time when without a dog.
When walkers with dogs did not stick to paths but roamed the dunes, they scared the plovers from their nests 93.8% of the time. The study by Dr Miguel Ángel Gómez-Serrano of the University of Valencia found none of the 714 nest disturbance events observed on four beaches in Castellón and Valencia involved dogs on leads.
Ban Dogs from Beaches During Shorebird Breeding Season
There seems to be an easy solution to the problem. Ban dogs from beaches during the nesting season for shorebirds, some of which are critically endangered throughout the planet. Other forms of human activity don’t seem to have the same flushing effect.
Regular readers know I am a keen bird lover, so will not be surprised by my recommendation. Yet although I don’t presently own a dog, I don’t think this is more than a minimal imposition. I’m not calling for a ban on all action around nesting sites: people would still be able to enjoy their beach walks, provided they kept to pathways. Nor am I calling for a complete ban on dogs walking on beaches either, but in nesting season only, and provided they are kept on leashes the rest of the time (although I understand certain doglovers may occasionally succumb to a whim to let their dogs run free).
Doglovers can always take their pets to other natural habitats during nesting season, those many sites where shorebirds don’t nest.
Over to The Guardian again:
“Fewer and fewer beaches have the capacity to host coastal bird breeding populations, so we should be concerned about conserving them,” said Gómez-Serrano, who called for dogs to be banned from more beaches during nesting season.
“Dogs produce a disproportionate impact compared to that of people walking on the beach, so their entry into these areas should be limited at least in the most critical [breeding] season for these species. At this time, birds are incubating their eggs or guarding their chicks, and cannot change beaches to avoid disturbance.”
The Kentish plover is a small, declining shorebird that lays camouflaged eggs on beaches across southern Europe.
And, for those who don’t know this, successful nesting relies particularly on not being disturbed. The Guardian again:
In Britain, similar shorebirds such as ringed plovers, oystercatchers, and little, common and sandwich terns nest on beaches. The ringed plover is on the “red list” of Britain’s most endangered birds. Its population fall of 37% between 1984 and 2007 partly attributed to nest disturbance as beaches become busier.
While cordons are erected on some British beaches in spring to encourage walkers to keep off small areas of sand and shingle where birds nests, the string rarely keeps out dogs.
Nesting birds will abandon their nests if disturbed too often, or their eggs may become too cold or too hot to hatch. Plover eggs have been found to tolerate temperatures between 15C and 42C before the embryo dies, with eggs rapidly overheating in Spain if left in direct sunlight without the bird sitting on them.
For those who might wonder whether a complete ban during nesting season is necessary, when a simple leash requirement might suffice, the answer is no, it would not. According to the Guardian:
Mark Cocker, a naturalist and author, said: “We’re in denial. We know dogs are genetically wolves and we have 10 million of them in this country. There’s clearly an environmental issue, but conservationists are scared of talking about it because it’s such a strong lobby. It’s about dog-owners showing restraint and understanding they are part of a very large cohort of people and the privilege of owning a dog comes with responsibilities.
“It’s not about excluding dogs from beaches or public spaces but acknowledging that dogs off leashes cause significant problems. Dogscould easily be kept on a lead between the months of March and June when birds nest. For eight months of the year, they wouldn’t be interfering with birds’ reproduction on the beach and there should be no conflict.”
Asked whether keeping dogs on leads during the spring breeding season would help nesting birds, Gómez-Serrano said: “Although the roaming movements of dogs are more reduced when on lead, dogs trigger an anti-predatory instinct in birds not comparable to that of humans.
“In addition, unfortunately dog owners do not usually comply with the regulations about dog walking on leads, so surveillance is necessary so that these regulations are respected. Obviously, there is usually not enough budget for this purpose, and managers prefer not to address this widespread problem in coastal areas.”
And even if this half-measure would work, it is still necessary to enforce the restriction – something that has proven to be a burden elsewhere, and which would of course need to be publicly-funded, at a time, when the COVID1-19 pandemic has decimated fiscal situations worldwide.
California State of Mind
California has been the site of a long-running battledbetween dog lovers and birders. The Orange Country Register reports:
Dog owners and bird lovers have clashed for years over the Santa Ana River mouth area, home to two rare bird species — and the conflict appears likely to continue at the illegal dog beach.
The Coastal Commission on Wednesday approved two measures intended to discourage dogs, their owners and dog walking companies from the stretch of sand. But environmentalists and several commissioners say the proposals are inadequate to protect the threatened snowy plover and endangered least tern in the area.
“I think the benefits will be minimal,” said Garry Brown of Orange County Coastkeeper, one of several groups that would like stricter, more far-reaching measures.
“It’s a step in the right direction … but we’d really like to see more enforcement by the county, the city and the Coastal Commission.”
The channel between the jetties at the river mouth — the coastal boundary between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach — is overseen by the county, whose ordinances ban people and pets from such channels as well as prohibiting dogs on all county beaches. Immediately to the southeast of the channel is a stretch of Newport Beach-controlled sand, where dogs are permitted on leashes before 10 a.m. and after 4:30 p.m.
Alas, the reality is that dog owners regularly flout leash laws,, in part due to lack of enforcement, but also because such beach users fail to see how such restrictions actually protect nesting shorebird. And they may be right. Because the latest study shows that half measures like leash laws don’t dully protect birds – and particularly of they only apply during certain hours of the day, Over again to the Orange Country Register:
However, unleashed dogs regularly romp throughout the day both in the channel and on the Newport Beach side of the river mouth. Even when the dogs don’t chase birds or trample nests, their presence frightens birds and disrupts breeding, biologists say.
The California Coastal Commission thinks better enforcement of such half measures might help save the nesting birds. So it has stopped up enforcement, according to the Orange County Register:
In response to concerns of environmentalists and Coastal Commission staff, the county says that last August it began increasing Sheriff’s Department patrol of the area to about three times a week. Brown and others say there’s little evidence the increased law enforcement presence has been a substantial deterrent.
Additionally, the county proposed posting two new “No Trespassing” signs and two educational signs explaining that the area is a “sensitive wildlife protection area.”
The commission on Wednesday voted 9-1 to approve the new signs as well a requirement that the county provide an annual report documenting the number of visits to the area by sheriff’s deputies and county staff as well as the number of warnings and citations given.
But the latest effort may not be sufficient. A complete ban on dogs, at least during nesting season, may be necessary here (as it has in fact been applied on other California beaches, as well as elsewhere in the U.S.) Again, the Orange County Register reports:
Penny Elia of the Sierra Club is among the skeptical environmentalists.
“We have a lot of signs in the area and they are not read by the public,” she said. “I want to see the beach closed and the closure enforced.”
Elia wants to put the sand off limits for several blocks on the Newport Beach side of the river mouth. That would make access to the channel area more difficult and reduce human activity on the environmentally sensitive dunes on that side of the channel.
Brown, meanwhile, would like the city of Newport Beach to work with environmentalists to select some place else in the city for a dog beach.
“There’s not reason it needs to be in the middle of a wildlife habitat,” he said
The latest research suggests that dogs and nesting shorebirds don’t mix – wherever they might come together. Policy, whether it be in the EU, post-Brexot UK, or throughout U.S. states. needs to recognize that reality.