In a wild and scrub public park just above Haworth, after a walk through Brontë Country, I was delighted to see a hawk perched on a treetop. I thought of A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines and the magnificent film adaptation Kes. “It’s fierce, and it’s wild, and nobody cares, not even me, right. And that’s why it’s great.”
And it was a kestrel, golden and fawn, with a touch of gray, small but sharp-eyed, king of the air currents. I watched it. It looked back at me. Time hung by a thread, a bit like the hawk in the rain in Ted Hughes’ famous poem.
Then out of the bracken came a young cocker spaniel, tugging at his long leash, yapping and wailing. His sibling, another pup, joined in, albeit in the opposite direction as if trying to celebrate their clumsy, clumsy, and now loudly protesting owner.
Buggy, stop! Stop it or I’ll take you back to the car! Kanye, get down!”
The bird of prey found a thermal to take it away from this place of noisy people and vicious mutts. I did the same, although I slogged furiously instead of floating smoothly.
A growing problem
The scene was a fitting, if depressing, conclusion to a subplot of my morning walk. Walking through the semi-wilderness of Penistone Hill Country Park, I’d noticed a proliferation of doggy walnut whips, rolls, sausages and pellets: turds of every shape, size and hue, some free to contaminate the grassland and fool an unsuspecting walker. spoil , others in their little plastic bags thrown overboard.
It was the first time I’d seen so much dog poop in one place, and there’s no doubt the problem is getting worse across the country. The widely reported dog-buying craze during the first two years of the pandemic has clearly had an effect. Around 3.2 million families bought pets during that period, raising the number of dog-owning households in the UK from around 22 percent to 33 percent.
It is estimated that over 1,000 tonnes of waste is now produced every day by British dogs, with a recent report suggesting that County Durham tops the UK’s list when it comes to complaints. But Brontë Country certainly had its share. There was poop on the footpaths, on the lanes, in the hedges, even behind the stone wall where I sat down for a cup of tea.
The Rural Code
So what’s the answer? Gentle rebukes don’t seem to work. The 2021 revised Countryside Code, which asks us to “be nice, say hello, share the space” and “make a memory” when visiting coasts, farmland, parks and forests, was criticized by campaigners because they were too soft for dog owners. Given that the poop problem is both dangerous and unpleasant — dog feces can cause toxocariasis, an infection that can lead to dizziness, nausea, asthma, and even blindness or seizures — a hard line seems warranted.
More bins, signs reminding dog walkers of the rules and maybe even free plastic bags would help, but cuts in city budgets make this unlikely. I certainly didn’t see any bins or signs on my walk through West Yorkshire, nor any rangers or anyone working to collect the rubbish.
Fines are handed out, all too rarely. Anyone who fails to clean up after their dog could be fined up to £100 and up to £1,000 if the case goes to court. But Bradford Metropolitan District Council’s own statistics show that less than three per cent of reported incidents lead to a penalty. Of 263 reports of dog poop in the area in 2021, only seven were charged.
Rise of dog ownership
Bradford Council, which leases Penistone Hill Country Park from Yorkshire Water, agrees that the problem “appears to have increased nationally with the increase in dog ownership during the pandemic”. The water supply company’s own walking guide underlines the importance of continuing to clean up and dispose of manure. A spokesperson added: “As far as Haworth Moor is concerned, it’s extremely difficult to control, as you might imagine, but we are currently launching our own in-house team of rangers, which can help.”
Manure guards would be great, harking back to the 1800s when “pure finders” scooped up dog poop to sell to town tanneries. Other out-of-the-box solutions that have been put forward recently include DNA testing (to identify and punish dirty dog owners) and drones (to track down and clean up rogue turds). expect your congregation to embrace it.
But with so many dogs and blatantly irresponsible owners out in the open, the problem is virtually impossible to control. Farmers often get bad press regarding access issues, but you have to sympathize with the one near Stanbury – a mile outside Haworth – who had hand-painted a large sign: ‘Thanks for all your plastic and wet wipes. Tasty”.
Threat to wildlife
Of course, the problems caused by Britain’s burgeoning dog population go beyond mere mud. There are numerous reported cases of dogs distressing livestock. But they also threaten wildlife. They pose a threat to coastal seabirds and ground-nesting birds.
Nicholas Milton, author of The Secret Life of the Adder, credits the problem of “uncontrolled dogs in nature reserves” as one of the factors leading to their near extinction in the UK. Dogs have attacked badgers, chased red squirrels and can injure sea otters. We have a national problem, it seems, and one that undermines all grand-sounding rewilding and reintroduction projects.
One thing is clear: without giving serious thought to how we tackle the problem, and with climate problems and the crisis of the cost of living forcing more of us to holiday at home, the mountain of poop on our moors, hills, parks and sidewalks – and the problem of lousy dog owners – will only get worse.