Should we have Asbos for cats and dogs?
Britain is a nation of animal-lovers. It’s a cliche, but it’s true — and that’s why I can’t understand the sheer irresponsibility of so many British pet owners.
They allow their animals to run amok and cause untold death and destruction to our native wildlife. If we continue to let our pets maraud over the countryside in this manner, I fear for the future of our native mammals, birds and reptiles.
On an episode of Springwatch that I presented this year, viewers saw the gory truth of pets as predators when our cameras filmed a cat as it attacked a wood warbler’s nest.
Brutally and needlessly, it killed the chicks. The cat was only acting on instinct, of course, but it brought home graphically the cruel impact that our domestic animals have. It is imperative we act to minimise the damage they do.
I’m a dog owner. I have two mischievous black poodles, Itchy and Scratchy, and every day I walk them in the glades of the New Forest around my home.
As I write, the torrential rain has turned much of the land to swamp, making it harder for many wild animals to survive at this most crucial time of their breeding cycle.
They are already under assault from pollution, human over-population, intensive farming and loss of habitat. The last thing they need is the menace of the British dog-walker.
The New Forest national park alone sees 25,000 hours of dog-walking every day. Owners are expected to keep their dogs under control — but that is loosely interpreted by some.
I recently challenged a man who was letting his labradors gallop over a meadow, 100 yards away.
‘They are under control,’ he insisted — and to prove it, he whistled. The dogs came bounding back.
‘What about the birds?’ I demanded, pointing at the skylarks shrieking in alarm as they circled above the dogs.
‘My dogs can’t fly,’ said the man. ‘What harm are they doing?’
A great deal of harm is the answer. Those birds had been frightened from their nests. If the nests contained eggs, they were left unprotected and chilled — perhaps fatally.
If the nests contained chicks, they were at the mercy of predators such as rats and weasels.
Domestic dogs aren’t predators but birds don’t know that. To them, there’s no difference between a Jack Russell and a wolf.
All over the UK, dogs are making it impossible for birds to breed successfully. They aren’t direct killers, but they cause many species to fail.
Almost 50 per cent of New Forest birds nest on the ground, and when dogs are running loose, the birds are prevented from doing all their normal behaviours: courting, breeding, feeding, nesting and rearing young.
During the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, when dog walkers had to stay away from national parks, the populations of ground-breeding birds such as lapwings, redshanks, curlews and stonechats boomed. Take away the damage done by dogs, and these birds thrive.
I am not anti-dog, but as their custodians we have a duty to ensure they fit into both animal and human communities.
Over the past half-century, we have made huge strides with dog behaviour. I remember that my family had a pet dog in the Sixties that was let out to roam the streets wherever it pleased.
No doubt it fouled gardens, scavenged for food and ran among cars in traffic. I cringe to think of it, but that was usual behaviour for dog-owners to allow in those days.
The point is that we have changed. Society has learned better habits with its pets. We don’t have to keep making the mistakes of the past. We can learn and adapt and show consideration — for wild animals as well as people.
It’s not just dogs. Cats are just as big a problem for wildlife, especially in towns. Domestic cats in Britain kill 200 million creatures a year, from birds to moths and lizards.
Virtually all of these do us no harm and are a vital part of the fragile ecostructure in our gardens.
In the days when cats did a valuable job of keeping down mice and other vermin, letting Tibbles prowl unchecked was commonplace.
But we no longer live in Victorian farmhouses with rats in the yard, and we don’t have rodents nibbling on the bread in our cupboards. Our lifestyles have changed, and so must our cats’ lifestyles.
If we all kept our cats indoors at night, this slaughter would fall by half. What’s more, owners would no longer wake up to the unpleasant sight of half a shrew on the doormat.
Every cat should have a double bell on its collar. This simple measure would ensure other animals could hear your cat approaching and take flight. Studies show that bells reduce cat kills by 45 per cent.
Those who think I’m being alarmist should look to the example of Australia. I visited the country recently to film an episode of Secrets Of Our Living Planet.
Hunters: Cats have been known to kill bandicoots, wallabies, quolls and bettongs
The experience opened my eyes to the dangers posed to the natural world by domestic pets.
The introduction of the domestic cat to Australia helped to massacre, within a few decades, marsupial species that had existed there for tens of millions of years.
The first cats arrived with early settlers 230 years ago, but the problem really erupted at the start of the 20th century when the rabbit (another new arrival) spread like a plague across the country.
Cats were released into the wild in the hope they’d keep rabbit numbers down. Instead, they hunted the native animals, which had no defence against the feline’s hunting prowess.
There were existing marsupial predators, such as the Tasmanian tiger, but the cat was a different kind of killer — far more efficient. The result was an apocalypse.
Across that vast continent, there are many habitats that can never be restored. The feral cats, spreading with epidemic swiftness, turned to prey of all sizes.
They were not afraid to attack animals as big as wallabies, but their easiest targets were smaller: bettongs, impossibly cute creatures which are sometimes called rat-kangaroos; quolls, which remind me of stoats with a pouch; and bandicoots, which are small and inquisitive, similar to gerbils.
At least one kind of bandicoot, the desert-living pig-footed variety, is extinct — it was wiped out by the Fifties as feral cats moved into its habitat.
In nearby New Zealand, authorities have also been forced to implement harsh measures.
In some towns there is a cat curfew. Let yours out at night and the cat-catcher will get it … and you will be liable for a punishing fine. Cat- catchers enforce a TNR policy:Trap-Neuter-Return.
In Britain, our native animals evolved alongside wildcats and even wolves. They have better defences. But it is the sheer number of domestic pets that’s taking its toll now.
As pet lovers, we have to find the courage to address the issue and develop new habits that respect our dwindling wildlife.
The alternative is to face the kind of crisis that’s already swept across Australia.
Source: Daily Mail