Dog walkers should respect our countryside at all times
My dog, Kiko, was on her leash, but the two terriers coming towards us were running free, with no sign of an owner. One of them started to growl, moving towards us rapidly in an assertive way. In response, Kiko's hackles went up.
For a few moments, I thought that there might be a fracas, so I picked Kiko up and held her close to me as the dogs passed by. Half a minute later, the terriers' owner appeared around the corner, unaware that her pets had almost been involved in an incident.
The episode reminded me of the importance of owners being fully responsible for their dogs activities when out on walks in the countryside.
The Irish countryside is one of this nation's greatest assets. Population density is still low compared to many countries, so it's possible to go on walks through the countryside enjoying peace and solitude. In contrast, I've been on country walks in densely populated parts of the UK where it feels like being on a busy street, with the continual passage of people and dogs in both directions.
As time passes, Ireland is changing, with the human (and dog) population expected to continue to rise steeply in the coming decades. People's habits are changing too, with more folk enjoying spending time in "the great outdoors". If Ireland is going to maintain its reputation as a land with a peaceful, untarnished countryside, it's important that people - and dogs - behave in a way that does not impinge on others.
An Irish organisation - Leave No Trace - has been set up to promote responsible outdoor recreation, aiming to reduce the impact of human (and accompanying animals) on the countryside. The organisation's title says it all: we should all aim to leave no trace of our activities behind us, whether we're walking, cycling, fishing, horseriding, carrying out water sports, camping, or doing anything at all in rural areas. The aim is to eliminate litter, water pollution, and disturbance of vegetation, wildlife, livestock and other people.
The Leave No Trace concept depends more on attitude and awareness than on rules and regulations: public education is critical, through publications, seminars and online.
There are seven key Leave No Trace principles, and the first six of these are very relevant to anyone who intends to walk a pet dog in the countryside.
First, plan ahead and prepare. Take time to learn about the area that you'll be visiting: are there likely to be issues with livestock or specially protected habitats or wildlife species? Bring all the dog-related paraphernalia that you might need, including dog leashes/harnesses and poop-collecting bags.
Second, be considerate of others. Think about your hosts, the local community, and their livelihood. Don't do anything that's likely to upset them in any way. Remember that farms are working environments, and only bring your dog onto farmland with the landowner's permission. At all times, think about how your dog may impact on others: some people are nervous around animals, and you can't assume that they will be happy for your dog to come up to them to say hello, even if you know your pet won't be in any way aggressive.
You are responsible at all times for your dog's actions: it isn't good enough to say "he hasn't done that before" if he runs off and causes a nuisance in any way. While it may be acceptable to allow him off the leash if you know that he will respond rapidly and consistently to the recall command, you still need to be cautious if there is a bend in the path ahead or if there are potential distractions like people or other animals. If in doubt, keep him on the leash. You can buy long elasticated leashes that allow you to give your dog plenty of freedom while still keeping him under close control.
Third, respect animals and wildlife. The impact of dogs on other creatures can be greater than you'd expect: their presence can frighten wildlife away, abandoning their young or leaving a critically important habitat. This is another reason why dogs cannot be left out of your sight and control, and if visiting sensitive habitats or during particular seasons (such as nesting times of some birds), you may need to leave your dog behind completely.
Fourth, travel on durable ground. Just as humans need to stick to pathways to avoid erosion and damage to delicate terrains, it's increasingly important that dogs - especially large dogs - are also prevented from causing damage.
Fifth, leave what you find. Don't let your dog pick up objects like discarded bones or antlers: these things fill important ecological niches, acting as a valuable food resource for scavenging animals.
Sixth, dispose of waste properly. Dog poop should be removed from trails, picnic areas or campsites, either by burying it in a shallow hole, or by putting it into a bag and carrying it home with you.
The countryside belongs to us all, and everyone who uses it - with their dogs or not - has a responsibility to care for it carefully. The message is simple: Leave No Trace - of yourself, or of your dog.
Leave No Trace Ireland will be holding its network meeting and AGM on Friday May 16th 2014, at Kippure Estate, Manor Kilbride, Blessington, Co Wicklow. The network meeting provides an excellent opportunity to connect with other people with an interest in encouraging responsible enjoyment of Ireland's natural environment. The theme for this years event is "Dogs in the Outdoors".