Commercial dog walkers lead by example at conservation site

Licenced commercial dog walkers are working with the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust to encourage responsible dog walking at the 1,100-hectare conservation site.

There are 18 professional dog walking companies licensed to use the heaths, each of them walking up to six dogs at a time, the maximum number permitted by both law and insurance regulations. They lead by example in actively promoting the Pebblebed Dog Code – a code of conduct which aims to help all dog walkers understand how they can use the heaths responsibly.

“The licencing scheme is so much more than just filling in a form,” explains Kim Strawbridge, the Pebblebed Heaths Site Manager. “We’ll sit down together so the commercial dog walkers can find out all about what we do, and vice versa and this has helped foster a strong relationship. They really are our eyes and ears on the heaths and they are setting a good example too.”

The Trust was established in 2006 by landowner Clinton Devon Estates to manage the ancient heathland near Exeter, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Kim Strawbridge explains the importance of keeping the heaths free of dog poo: “Heathland is special in that it needs soil which is nutrient poor. Adding nutrients changes the soil which eventually changes the plant and animal life. Typical heathland plants include heather and gorse as well as grasses, but not the type found on your lawn; one of the reasons we see green verges, especially near the car parks, is because of nutrient enrichment from dog poo.

“These grasses can outcompete more sensitive heathland plants. Not only is it a legal requirement to remove your dog’s waste from the heaths, it is the easiest way people can help us keep the heath healthy for the wildlife that live there, the stock that graze there, and the people that work and play there.”

Kim added: “It’s clear that the overwhelming majority of dog walkers are doing a brilliant job and picking up after their pets, but there is still more work to be done, particularly around the car parks and the first few hundred metres of paths.

“One way people can help us improve these areas is by getting themselves ready before letting their dogs out of the car. It is very easy to be distracted at the start of the walk and we think this is why we still have a particular problem in these areas.”

Cassie Bulger runs a dog walking and equine care business, Pets Outdoors, and received her licence from the Trust last year.

“I know all the dogs I walk well,” said Cassie, a former teacher. “They trust me and come to me when I call them; we have a responsibility to make sure they’re well behaved.”

The 46-year-old’s consideration for the heathland, and those who use it, even extends to picking up other people’s dogs’ waste. This May, two volunteer poo pick up events, suggested by Cassie, were supported by several commercial dog walkers, all keen to uphold their reputation.

“You come to have a bond with your dogs and know each of their habits, including when and where they like to go to the toilet,” said Cassie. “I know which of my dogs will want to go as soon as they jump out of the car and that Zach goes by a bush and Millie likes to go near a gate! Not seeing your dog go, is no excuse.

“Staff that lead school activities on the heaths told me they go and pick up dog waste before the kids play there – no one should have to do this.”