Poo's been on my land?

An academic study has revealed how dog excrement is an important source of risk to biodiversity in vulnerable areas where an excess of it builds up on popular footpaths.
clear up after your dog

Dog excrement is a significant risk to biodiversity in vulnerable parts of the countryside where an excess of it builds up on popular footpaths. Charles de Winton from CLA Cymru – the body which represents farmers and land managers says, “As the Welsh Government looks to increase public access to the countryside, steps need to be taken to ensure we protect sensitive environments.”

“There are around 9.6 million dogs in the UK and some 24 percent of households contain at least one canine. During the pandemic, their number increased and home-based working has led to a marked increase in dog-walking in the countryside. Farmers and land managers tend to have them too but these are indigenous. Informal interviews with dog-walkers confirm that most dogs are walked about twice a day – and usually nature takes its’ course twice on every walk. Some of this may be picked-up, much of it isn’t – certainly nothing in liquid form. It’s good that some people clear-up after their dogs. That some people choose to leave poo-bags in the countryside is another issue.

Charles adds, “We’re long aware of the health risks associated with dog excrement – to human health and also more commonly to livestock: potentially fatal bacterial infections such as campylobacter and salmonella, hyatid disease caused by tapeworm; also neosporosis (which causes abortion in cattle), and sarcocystosis (neurological disease in sheep). But a research study published this month has revealed how damaging dog faeces and urine can be to floral diversity.”

Work done by Prof. Pieter de Frenne from the University of Ghent, has revealed that dog faeces and urine add around 11kg of nitrogen and 5kg of phosphorous per hectare in sites regularly used by dog walkers around that city. His work concluded that these nutrients are substantial and can be detrimental to biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. It means that species like nettles, bramble and rye grass take over from flora that cannot easily take-up added nutrients. This has a knock-on effect on invertebrate diversity.

“Increased nitrogen and phosphorous levels are a real issue in the Welsh countryside,” Charles says.

The Ghent study concludes that the researchers are surprised how high nutrient inputs from dogs can be. It says inputs from agriculture, industry and traffic rightfully receive a lot of attention. However dogs are entirely neglected in this respect

“The real issue here is that as carnivores, dogs are fed a highly nutrient-rich meat-based diet making them net importers of nitrogen and phosphorous to the soil. Livestock excrement is vegetable-based and tends to recycle or reprocess locally existing nutrients in a cycle. Farmers continue to invest and change their methods to manage stock emissions.”

“Dog-walking has physical and mental health benefits to both humans and canines,” Charles concludes. “This study ends with a call for land managers – especially in vulnerable ecosystems – to take action to emphasise to visitors the negative nutrification effects of dog excrement. This stresses the need for government to place more emphasis in educating the general public and in enforcing the use of leashes to ensure dog excrement can be managed responsibly by dog owners.”

Note to editors:

The Dog Fouling (Scotland) Act 2003 makes it an offence not to pick up dog faeces. Ironically, it exempts agricultural land including grazing land. Some agricultural representative organisations are looking for this exemption to be removed.

In England and Wales, local authorities can introduce public spaces protection orders, making it an offence not to clean up dog mess in certain areas. Under those orders, a person who doesn't clean up after their dog may face a fixed penalty notice of up to £80.