Reasons to keep dogs on leads around wildlife

Here's why keeping your dog on a lead could help protect the wildlife you might encounter while out. 

10th July 2024

Through our ‘Tails’ of UK Wildlife campaign, we’ve already explored ways you can help wildlife as a dog walker and dog poo etiquette. Now it’s time to discover the reasons to keep dogs on leads around wildlife and why doing so protects natural ecosystems.

As tempting as it can be to let our canine companions frolic through fields, forests, or sand dunes, unfortunately, there’s a lot of harm they could cause to wildlife. Let’s uncover the types of wildlife you might encounter in different habitats, and why keeping your dog on a lead could protect them…  

Top tip: If your best fur-iend needs an off-lead run regularly, dog walking fields offer safe spaces for them to enjoy without the worry of disturbing wildlife!

In park habitats

Just some of the wildlife species you’ll typically find in parkland habitats include:

  • Foxes.
  • Hedgehogs.
  • Grey squirrels.
  • Frogs.
  • Pipistrelle bats.
  • Robins.
  • Sparrows.
  • Blackbirds.
  • Starlings.
  • Wood pigeons.

Alongside lowering the chances of negative interactions with other dogs, who may not be as friendly as yours, keeping your canine companion on a lead through parkland benefits wildlife by:

  • Eliminating the risk of your dog chasing wildlife – like squirrels, birds, and amphibians, who could be hurt while trying to get away.
  • Avoiding wildlife encounters – which might land your dog in as much distress as it would wildlife, e.g. if they attempt to ‘play’ with a hedgehog.
  • Making it easier to clean up after your dog – since you’ll know exactly where they’ve ‘been’.

In woodland habitats 

Woodland habitats can be found in both urban and rural areas – in fact, you might even find woodland environments along canals and waterways, too! Here’s just a snapshot of the wildlife species you might encounter if you walk through a woodland habitat:

  • Deer
  • Badgers.
  • Buzzards.
  • Chiffchaffs.
  • Cuckoos.
  • Greater spotted woodpeckers.
  • Adders.
  • Bank voles.
  • Hazel dormice.
  • Pine marten.

Enchanting as woodland and forestry walks are, keeping your dog on a lead while walking along footpaths is essential because:

  • Ground flora (like bluebells) and ancient tree roots can be damaged by dogs – as well as walkers.
  • During winter, birds and small mammals need to conserve energy to survive – meaning if they’re chased by your dog, their chances of survival are greatly reduced.
  • Part of being a responsible pet parent involves regularly using preventative flea and worming treatments – which can, unfortunately, be poisonous to wildlife. For instance, when your dog brushes past plants or wildflowers after a spot-on treatment, they could unintentionally kill pollinators, like bees, who visit those flowers.

In grassland habitats

Grassland and meadow environments are home to wildlife and domestic animals, like livestock. The various species you might see while venturing through a field include:

  • Cattle.
  • Sheep.
  • Horses.
  • Rabbits.
  • Grass snakes.
  • Bumblebees.
  • Butterflies.
  • Beetles.
  • Peregrine falcons.
  • Owls.

Here’s why it’s crucial to keep your dog on a lead in grassland environments, meadows, and fields:

  • Ground-nesting birds (like skylarks) are at risk when a dog disturbs their nesting site – and with 66% of UK ground-nesting bird species in decline, every nest is precious. 
  • Vulnerable wildlife species may become a target for dogs who like to chase – no-matter how well trained your canine companion is, their behaviour could still be driven by instinct. For example, studies have shown that dogs of any breed might find it fun to chase wildlife.  
  • Dog attacks on large animals could cause injuries to both parties – also, even if dogs don’t catch them, the stress of being chased often leads deer and livestock to miscarry.
  • Dogs chasing wildlife can be too pre-occupied to notice hazards such as barbed-wire fences, sharp objects, fox holes etc which could result in injuring themselves

Important: It’s illegal for your dog to chase and/or worry (attack) livestock.

In lake habitats

Lake habitats are home to an array of wildlife species, including:

  • Herons.
  • Ducks.
  • Geese.
  • Swans.
  • Dragonflies.
  • Newts.
  • Fish.

Despite the canine joy of splashing into a lake, pond, river, or stream, our dogs could inadvertently be causing harm to wildlife – and themselves. It’s essential to keep your canine companion on a lead in environments containing a lake, pond, river, or stream due to:

  • Flea and worming treatments harming aquatic ecosystems – if your dog pees in the areas surrounding a lake or pond, chemicals from worming tablets eventually reach the water. Sadly, when insecticides used in flea and worming treatments kill water-based insects, it has a negative impact on fish and bird populations in that area.
  • Chasing sticks into water destroys wildlife habitats – as well as posing a significant risk to your dog’s safety.
  • The serious health risk of blue-green algae – which is extremely toxic to dogs and is usually found in the stagnant (still) water of lakes or ponds.

In wetland habitats

A diverse array of wildlife species call wetlands habitats home, including:

  • Waterfowl.
  • Lapwings.
  • Curlew.
  • Golden plover.
  • Water voles.
  • Otters.
  • Damselflies.

Examples of just a few risks associated with off-lead dogs in wetland environments:

  • Disturbance can lead birds to abandon their nests in fear – so, sadly, eggs and/or chicks are then in danger of becoming prey or passing away in the cold.
  • Golden plover numbers in the Nene Valley Special Protection Area (SPA) have declined significantly (by 76%) in recent years – which research suggests is largely due to disturbance by off-lead dogs.
  • Endangered species (e.g. water voles) are frightened when dogs splash around in nearby waters – sometimes forcing them to flee from their habitat altogether.

In sand dune habitats

Sand dunes provide a sanctuary to species such as:

While trekking along sand dunes with our canine companions can make for a great adventure, there are lots of reasons to keep dogs on leads in these habitats, including:

  • Preventing harm to areas of the sand dunes being carefully managed for the benefit of nature – dogs could easily trample vegetation and damage delicate sand dune ecosystems.
  • Dogs who enjoy digging in the sand might destroy sensitive habitats – for example, undisturbed sand is essential for ground-nesting insects to thrive.
  • Knowing where your dog has pooed is vital, to avoid killing rare plants – it can be difficult to locate their poo if your canine companion is off-lead.

In beach and coastal habitats

Beautiful beaches and coastal footpaths are first choice destinations for many of us when the sunshine finally arrives! Here are some of the incredible species you might see as you stroll along the seashore:

  • Grey seals.
  • Crabs.
  • Sand hoppers.
  • Puffins.
  • Cormorants.
  • Little terns.
  • Oystercatchers.

However tempting it can be to let our dogs roam free and race across the sand, keeping them on a lead is best for everyone because:

  • If wild birds are repeatedly scared by dogs in their habitat, they’ll struggle to forage – eventually resulting in a loss of biodiversity as birds seek alternative locations.
  • Barking dogs could cause noise pollution – resulting in the disturbance of many wildlife species living in beach or coastal environments.
  • While your dog is on a lead, you can safely manage their behaviour – to lower the risk of emergency situations, like saltwater poisoning or sand impaction.

For support to help your pooch feel comfortable while walking on a lead, you could check out our articles about loose lead walking and finding the right reward.

To nurture nature in other ways, we recommend visiting our articles on providing water for wildlife and attracting wildlife to your garden safely as a pet owner!