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(Updated 14/7/01)

Dogged determination and pressure may win the day!

ON JULY 3, representatives of The Kennel Club travelled to The Lyndhurst Park Hotel, Hampshire, to pledge support to the New Forest Dog Owner’s Group (NFDOG) and also to report back to the Dog Legislation Advisory Group their findings, writes Phil Buckley. NFDOG, and The Kennel Club, are concerned about punitive restrictions being placed on dog walkers in the New Forest by the Forestry Commission’s interpretation of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW).

The Primary factor that is upsetting the responsible dog owners is the proviso that ‘Dogs must be kept on leads - with a maximum length of 2 metres - between 1st March and 31st July (as this period is the bird nesting season), and all year round in ‘the vicinity of livestock’.

Prior to the meeting, both public and media attendance had been encouraged by NFDOG’s committee. Posters had been placed all over Hampshire and as far as Dorset, and local press contacted directly. The results were quite astonishing, proving the depth of feeling of dog owners within the New Forest and Hampshire.

The hall was filled to capacity, accommodating the maximum 450 people and there were approximately 1000 concerned dog lovers outside. After the meeting, the PA system was moved outside to address those unable to come into the hall and this resulted in a further mass audience.

The Chairman, Pauline Ludlow, opened proceedings by welcoming everybody and advising that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss current and proposed restrictions within the New Forest and to seek a mandate to try to get the restrictions removed. Pauline also reassured the audience that NFDOG would take the campaign as far as was necessary, but that they did need the public’s support.

After rapturous applause, Pauline then lent the podium to Nicola Barker, a respected local solicitor who wished to get directly to the facts regarding both the current Foot & Mouth restrictions in the New Forest and the implications of the CROW Act. Nicola informed the audience that DEFRA advice (formally MAFF) was that dogs should be kept on a lead near livestock. This appeared to differ with the Forestry Commission’s advice, which was from a Ministry Vet informing the Forestry Commission that all dogs should be kept on a lead at all times. It was felt that the Commission had misquoted Government recommendations. Nicola went on to say that the Forestry Commission are in danger of losing support from every person who has abided by the strict Foot & Mouth conditions enforced if they do not reconsider their position with regard to CROW. Indeed, the CROW Act - which will not come into force until 2003 when the land had been mapped, but can be adopted by land owners much more quickly - was not intended to restrict dog owners or anyone who wished to enjoy the countryside. In fact, its aims are to increase the freedom of people who wish to use it. Nicola explained that dog owners do not have the right to use New Forest land. It is a privilege extended to them by the Forestry Commission. This privilege will not be affected by CROW, but Nicola felt that the Commission would like more control in the forest and the current Foot & Mouth restrictions are being used to target dog walkers. People agreed that they were starting to experience hostility when exercising their dogs in the forest, which obviously offended them, as they genuinely care about the protection of the forest.

Nicola then displayed NFDOG’s ‘Dog Owner’s Code’, which included the following points:

Nicola then requested that the Forestry Commission should:

Nicola’s talk was very well received and she then introduced Janine Redman, a local veterinary surgeon. Janine firstly mentioned that she agreed with the Foot & Mouth restrictions, but they should encompass all factors - cyclists, horse riders, caravans and campers etc - and not just dogs. She explained that no disinfectant matting had been implemented in the New Forest and the campsites were open. She reiterated the well-known fact that dogs are no more susceptible to transmitting the condition than humans, cars, horses and cycles, therefore she failed to see why dogs are being targeted when everyone else is being allowed access. It was felt that, once again, the dog was attracting incorrect negative publicity from misinformation and it was in fact the case that the biggest transmission risk was people who may have handled infected livestock in the previous seven days. Janine mentioned that in the New Forest cattle are allowed to roam free - even up and down the High Street - but in the New Forest dogs must be kept on a lead to protect livestock from possible infection, proving no rationale for the Commission’s decision. Janine felt that as long as dogs were kept under control and away from livestock the length of the lead was irrelevant. Everybody should simply stay away from the cattle in the forest. She also mentioned that the Commission’s suggestion that livestock was interested in dogs and vice versa was a nonsense. “The cattle ignore the dogs and the dogs don’t care much for the cattle either! Also, in the unlikely event that I was chased by cattle, the last thing I would wish is to be on the end of a lead!” This amusing admission brought much laughter from the audience and a round of applause for good measure!

Interestingly, Janine then commented on an article that appeared in the Lymington Times, scribed by an Anthony Passmore and entitled ‘Blood soaked victims’. This article had alleged that dogs were killing animals and exterminating the local wildlife. Vets in the area, infuriated by the content, researched their records and soon discovered that dogs cause 1 - 3 injuries in total from approximately ten million visits per year! Janine reaffirmed that dog training and correct obedience was the solution - “Dog proof stock and stock proof dogs”. Worryingly, Janine stated that she and her colleagues had started recently witnessing behavioural problems with dogs brought to their practices due to lack of exercise and being kept on a lead. It was felt that dogs obviously get far more exercise off the lead and this form of exercise gives the greatest pleasure to both dogs and their owners. Also, not many dog owners were walking over the forest at the moment whilst lead restriction apply as it’s no fun whatsoever. She has also received reports that owners were struggling with keeping dogs on leads, both physically and mentally. Janine concluded by saying that the tourist trade was suffering as people were not coming back with their dogs due to the current restrictions, the residents were suffering as there was nowhere for them to exercise their dogs off lead and “what price could be put on personal freedom and the need to fight to enjoy a quiet walk in the countryside?” Janine’s talk was very well received, amusing, and very much to the point.

The floor was then handed over to Kevin Hughes, a local ornothologist, who started his speech by stating “It is rubbish that nesting birds are endangered by dogs, as dogs tend to stick to the paths, scenting and marking.” Kevin continued that he had been bird watching on the New Forest for the past 30 years and in his experience, ground nesting birds are most vulnerable to human disturbance. A large number of birds deliberately nest near to tracks as they become habituated to non-threatening behaviour and he gave an example of an area that is used by 700 dog walkers per day, that supports an abundance of skylarks, warblers and other species of bird! Kevin’s suggestion was that the solution to this problem did not lie in persecuting dogs and their handlers. His solution was a simple and obvious one - some areas could be identified as key breeding sites, therefore simply ask the public not to enter these areas by the use of signage for example during the breeding season. This suggestion struck an obvious chord with the audience who enthusiastically clapped their approval.

The next speaker was Andy Wislow from the Countryside Commission, responsible for implementing CROW. He commented that he was happy to have been invited to speak at the meeting and felt that this Open Forum will be repeated all over the country as it is the Countryside Commission’s intention to seek public consultation nationwide. It is his agency’s task to conserve and enhance the countryside and to promote it for everyone to use. Interestingly, the special restrictions that are outline in the CROW Act 2000 are not necessarily ‘set in stone’ and can be revoked at the landowners’ discretion. Andy recommended that local groups like NFDOG should be encouraged nationwide as they can make their opinions known by making representations to Government via their MPs and as the process has just started a great deal of the framework of the legislation is up for discussion. Andy’s talk was brief as information on CROW and its implications is readily accessible on the Internet (www.countryside. or ring the access enquiry line on 01242 533439).

Next to talk was Mike Seddon, Recreational Manager from the Forestry Commission. The Chairman appealed for calm prior to Mr Seddon taking to the podium and her request had the desired effect. Mr Seddon explained that he felt that NFDOG could play a very important role in liaison with the Commission and reiterated that as CROW will apply to Forestry Commission land nationally it will be the Commission’s intention to speak to wildlife groups and dog owners nationwide, prior to implementation. English National Heritage will be providing the necessary guidance on conservation issues and the RSPB on ornothological issues. Questions were rapidly fired at Mr Seddon, whose opening statement was that the Commission was listening to views from all quarters and there was still much work to do prior to issuing their official policy.

Finally, Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP for New Forest took to the stage to proclaim that he opposes the CROW Act and does not feel that it even applies to the New Forest. He has also spoken with ministerial colleagues with legal backgrounds that have reaffirmed this point. Mr Swayne felt that the problem is not with the actual Act, but rather with the opportunities that the land manager (in this case the Forestry Commission) will attempt to take to persecute dogs and their owners. He was delighted with the way that the evening’s proceedings had evolved and felt that the Forestry Commission will have to listen very seriously to the residents’ concerns, because to decline to do so could, in his opinion, be a very severe error of judgement. Mr Swayne said that he had already raised the issue in Parliament and will be monitoring the situation carefully.

The meeting then concluded to a great deal of applause. No one present could deny that this had been an extremely positive discussion that must have left the Forestry Commission in no doubt as to the strength of public opinion. The Kennel Club will be writing to Mr Seddon to seek discussion with him on behalf of The Dog Legislation Advisory Group as the CROW Act 2000 may have implications for all dog owners on a national level who choose to exercise on Forestry Commission land. Indeed, The Kennel Club has already been contact by concerned dog owners in other areas such as Hertfordshire, Dartmoor, Bedfordshire, Glasgow and Derbyshire, all of whom have been experiencing problems in gaining access to footpaths and parks after the lifting of Foot & Mouth restrictions. Unfortunately, it may be that this issue will have wide-ranging implications for dog owners, unless protests are made.

Said Caroline Kisko, Kennel Club Secretary, “We are very pleased to lend our support to the NFDOG campaign, as The Kennel Club will continue to endeavour to defend all dogs and their owners. We feel that this issue has arisen as a knock-on effect from the Foot & Mouth restrictions and serves as just another excuse to persecute ‘man’s best friend’. If people from other areas of the country are experiencing difficulties with CROW please contact us, as we must protest against these restrictions.”

Avery Asender, a local Vet and Committee Member of NFDOG concluded, “NFDOG would like to thank everyone so much for their support to date. We were completely overwhelmed by the turn out to the open meeting and if people around the country wish to implement a similar campaign to ours, our Committee will help where we can, via our website: www.newforestdog. The information on the site may assist them to see how their local authorities intend to apply the CROW act. Our general advice would be to set up their own group, contact their local MPs, vets, lawyers, dog training groups and all responsible dog owners, and promote responsible dog ownership applicable to their area with a code which has been checked by vets and lawyers.”

The Kennel Club would agree with everything that Avery has advised. Being able to exercise your dog under control and off the lead is a right that all dog owenrs should enjoy in the UK and it is important to defend the dog’s role in society in an every growing anti-dog climate.