Sunday, 13 March 2016

Molly and Marley

Meet Molly and Marley visit Paxton Pits Nature Reserve.

When she is indoors, Molly is a shameless lap dog who will do anything for a cuddle but in the field, that cute little terrier becomes a terror! Deep down inside her genes there is a tiny bit of she-wolf that wants to run something down.

Molly chases birds. When she visits my house, nothing delights her more than to burst out of the conservatory in full voice, all fuzzy hair and teeth, launch herself into the middle of  a flock of feeding starlings or pigeons, then watch them explode into a mass of feathers all around her. The pigeons eye her from the roof-tops as she taunts them to come back for some more. She's middle aged now but some day she will catch one. I have no idea what she will do with it when she does. Ducks, geese, even swans, don't phase Molly. Perhaps the only cure would be an encounter with an ostrich or an emu.

Marley is a golden Labrador puppy, hyperactive and super-inquisitive, into everything. It's as though he's had too much caffeine.

On seeing me he says "Wotja got there?" (OK, he's from Labrador and he's a dog. He can't spell and he has no grammar, but he can talk.)

"Is that a camera?" "Cmon, take my picture"....."How's this?" ... "Take another one!"  ....... "WOW! -Was that a flash?"...."Do it again. Do it again. Make it flash"......."Can I lick it?".. "Yeah, yeah?" ..... "So then, do you have food on you?"

Marley licks the camera so the photo session is over, but now he wants me to play. How do I explain that I'm not really a doggy person?

Marley can't tell a leveret from a lamp-post or a faun from a fox-cub. If it moves, he will chase it and then try to lick it. Ellie, his owner knows all this, and that's why he's on a lead. Basically, he'd lick a gravel truck if he could catch it. A dog like Marley needs a lot of exercise so the ball thrower is really useful, but you need to be away from traffic in a field the size of Hampshire so that Marley can run 20 miles while Ellie strolls for a few hundred yards.

I'm a ranger, trying to run a nature reserve here, so you can see my problem. Most dogs are not killers but even lovely family pets like Molly and Marley cause a massive amount of disturbance to wildlife and this can have serious consequences, especially in spring and summer when there are so many baby birds and animals around. There's lots of scientific evidence that shows this.

Imagine Molly on the Meadow Trail. She keeps picking up scents of rabbits, foxes and badgers as well as other dogs and she zig-zags across the path, never going far, but she spots a swan on the lake and runs over to the shore to bark at it. Molly doesn't even see the pair of moorhens nesting on the bank because they slip into the water as soon as they hear her coming.  A magpie has been watching events unfold from the top of an alder tree and, with his mate, he soon empties the nest of eggs. It seems that the most significant issue around disturbance occurs when birds are nesting or they have helpless chicks on the ground. In a report produced for Natural England there is a recommendation that we should kill all the gulls, crows, magpies and jays on the Reserve to minimise the problem caused by dogs. I'm not going down that route.

So, apart from banning dogs or shooting half the birds, what can be done?

We try to keep sanctuary areas for wildlife where people and their pets cannot go, but this means putting up more and more fences. It's much better if people voluntarily stay on the paths and keep their pets there too. It's a matter of awareness, respect and cooperation.

Because nesting time is the most crucial period, from Easter to the end of August we ask dog owners to keep their pets on leads in the two areas where the problem is most severe; on the main Heron Trail to the river and across the visitor centre meadow. These are the areas that have the most vulnerable wildlife and where we have the biggest concentrations of visitors who come to visit the Reserve.