Friday, 16 March 2012

The "D" word

Responsible dog walkers will always be welcome at Paxton Pits.
I've been talking to our dog-walkers this week to ask them to keep their dogs on leads during the nesting season. As you might expect, the response has been mixed, but most of the people I spoke to were really reasonable about it and understood my reasons straight away.

One thing that was brought home to me was the low level of knowledge about the site among our visitors. Some don't know it is a nature reserve and most don't really appreciate what that means. They don't know where the boundaries are, or the names of the main features such as the lakes. I blame myself for this.

Despite the cuts, we need to spend more time out there talking with and listening to all our visitors. We reach a lot of them through the voluntary wardens in the Visitors' Centre; but dog walkers, anglers, joggers and cyclists are among the ones we don't catch in this way.

After a few more days of chatting to dog-walkers I will have a publicity campaign. The letter below has gone out to the Parish Newsletter as most of our dog walkers are probably from Little Paxton.

The bird nesting season for 2012 is already well under way. Last year our bird-ringing team reported that the very early spring had benefitted our resident birds such as robins and blue tits, but then the insect-eating summer migrants such as nightingales and warblers did not produce many young. Why was that?

After the leafy spring we soon fell into a drought situation. That meant that mud was hard to find for nests and even insects were in short supply. That’s the official explanation for so many nesting failures from May onwards. But at Paxton Pits it’s probably more complicated than that.

The common, resident song-birds on the reserve start breeding early and then keep nesting until June or even July. In a normal year the earliest attempts in February and March may fail but later broods are more successful. Last year it was the other way around, but that’s the whole point of the strategy; to spread the risk in a country where the weather has always been unpredictable.

The first summer migrants arrive in March but most nests are built from April onwards after they have recovered from their long journey. Many of these birds only attempt to raise one brood here so they can regain their full weight before leaving again for Africa. Some do raise two broods, and you can tell this because male sedge warblers and lesser whitethroats start singing for a new mate again in June.

So what’s the complication? Well, it’s this: ……DISTURBANCE.

Most of the early breeders at Paxton Pits are woodland birds that nest safely in trees or nest boxes while most of the later breeders nest on or near the ground where they are more prone to disturbance. Waders such as redshanks, lapwings and oystercatchers are only successful on islands in the middle of our lakes. Skylarks and partridges are now confined to the less disturbed areas within the quarry, while nightingales and whitethroats can only survive in the densest thorn bushes; and it doesn’t just apply to birds. Hares are also being pushed out by constant disturbance.

On any Nature Reserve, wildlife must be allowed to flourish without being disturbed by anyone or anything. In my view reserves should be over-productive; pumping out wildlife to re-colonise the fields and woods of Huntingdonshire and beyond. The District Council is required by law to protect the Local Nature Reserve at Paxton Pits and it’s my job to make sure we do.

Therefore I have a couple of requests to make.
  1. Would all visitors please keep to the paths? We maintain many miles of footpaths for the public so that they can view the reserve in safety without causing disturbance, but we have a few rogues in our midst. Some of these people are birdwatchers and photographers who I would expect to know better.
  2. Would dog owners on the Reserve please keep their pets on leads throughout the breeding season from late March until the end of July?  For many years we have tried to enforce a “dogs under control rule” but it’s impossible to enforce.

We will be having an awareness campaign throughout March and will be approaching anyone who does not comply after that to get their co-operation.

I know there will be objections from some dog walkers who have got used to letting their dogs run free on the Reserve and a few selfish people will not comply because they simply don’t care, but I really hope a voluntary approach works and that peer pressure on the rogues from responsible visitors will support me in this.

If you have any comments, please write to me at

After talking to people, I have come to realise that we are most likely to get co-operation if we tell people where they can let their dog off the lead rather than just telling them where they can't. 

The areas where dogs must be on leads are the Heron Trail and the Meadow Trail, but not the Ouse Valley Way or the Haul Road that leads to the quarry. Of course, there is a huge area off the reserve, from the Sailing Lake northwards all the way to Buckden, where there is little or no restriction on dog walking as long as people keep to the paths.

The start date for this restriction is Easter Sunday.