Dogs on nature reserves

Sussex Wildlife Trust has more than 30 nature reserves and many of them offer lovely walks for yourself and your dog. What does it mean to own a dog and enjoy the countryside? It can mean lots of fresh air, great views, and fantastic wildlife watching opportunities but also responsibility.

What does this mean for you?

Walking in the countryside often means seeing and coming into contact with farm animals. We manage many of our nature reserves using sheep, cattle and sometimes ponies to graze our sites. They are an important part of the day-to-day management of our grassland and heathlands.

By law, dogs must be under control around livestock and we ask that dogs are kept on leads where sheep, cows or ponies are present.

  • When meeting a sheep with your dog, it can be stressful for both yourself and the sheep. A sheep will often run and if chased when pregnant can abort lambs. Sheep are easily brought down by a dog, which will often injure or even kill it. Please put your dog on a lead when in the vicinity of the flock.
  • If cows are overly-inquisitive or pose any kind of threat, it is better to release your dog so that you are both free to get out of the way. The cows are usually more interested in your dog than you.
  • Ponies are very inquisitive about everything and will often come and have a look. Make sure you and your dog avoid touching or stroking the animals and avoid being kicked by not approaching from behind, as they can often lash out if frightened.

What about dog poo?

  • Bag it and bin it. Please don’t leave it, or dangle used poo bags on trees.
  • Many nature reserve volunteers will get home to find dog poo on their clothes and shoes. Not very pleasant.
  • On a more serious note, dog poo spreads disease. There has been a nationwide increase in dog faeces-related diseases affecting livestock. Animals can die and unborn lambs and calves can be aborted. This is of serious concern in the farming community. If dog mess was picked up and removed we would begin see this serious problem decline. Click here for more information on dog faeces and disease

What about the wildlife?

Many animals, especially birds and reptiles, are vulnerable to a dog running through open ground and grassland. Nests can be destroyed, adult birds can be frightened off and young chicks left to die. Adders can be disturbed and react when dogs are running through long grass and scrub. It has been known for dogs to be bitten by Adders, causing serious harm. Very often they just want to go and hide away from disturbance.

Please keep your dog on a lead or close to you where nesting birds or Adders are known to live, and stick to the footpaths.

When checking out where to walk, follow our links to individual nature reserves and you will find out whether they are grazed or whether ground nesting birds and Adders are known to be found. If you are walking on Open Access land dogs must be kept on a lead no longer than 2 metres between March 1st and July 31st, to protect ground nesting birds.

Top canine questions answered

My dog is well-behaved, has a great recall and gets on with other animals; why do I still need to be careful on nature reserves?

Keeping your dog close on a short lead helps to minimise distress and disturbance caused to wildlife. If your dog is off the lead and out of sight it may well be causing disturbance to wildlife, which can cause a reduction in breeding success and ultimately a decrease in population numbers. Wildlife Trusts welcome a wide variety of visitors to their nature reserves, from wildlife enthusiasts to school groups. It’s important to be aware that dogs can scare other users even unintentionally.

How do I know whether to keep my dog on a lead in a nature reserve?

Many Wildlife Trust nature reserves welcome dogs with responsible owners and have clear signage stating where a dog needs to be on a lead. There are also some nature reserves where Trusts kindly ask visitors not to bring their dogs. This is usually because the wildlife on site is extremely fragile, or because the site is used for educational activities. Check our website before heading to a nature reserve to find out whether dogs are allowed, and how to enjoy a walk while ensuring wildlife is protected. 

What do I need to think about when taking my dog on a walk around a nature reserve?

Please keep your dog under control and in sight at all times when exploring wild places. Please consider the wildlife around you, as well as other people. Always pick up all dog waste and dispose of it in appropriate bins or take it away with you. Dog mess adds excess nutrients to the soil that can have a major negative impact on sensitive habitats.

Why can't my dog enter ponds, rivers or other water bodies?

Please do not encourage your dog to swim in ponds, rivers or other water bodies. These areas are home to wildlife that your dog can disturb and there is also a risk of your pet getting injured. Dogs may also pollute waterbodies with chemicals used in flea treatments, which can be extremely harmful to aquatic life.

There's so much space on my local beach/sea front, where does my dog have to be on a lead?

Beaches can be home to ground-nesting birds such as terns and Ringed Plover as well as other marine wildlife, so look out for signage advising where dogs are best to be kept on a lead. Some beaches do not allow dogs during certain months of the year. The birds that nest on beaches are often very well camouflaged to hide from predators whilst sitting on their eggs. This makes them very difficult for people to spot, so you might not even know they're there. But they're still sensitive to disturbance. When a dog gets too close, they are likely to leave the nest, making the eggs or chicks more vulnerable. If an area has been cordoned off to protect nesting birds, please respect the boundaries and keep your dog away.

I have a guide-dog – can you advise on how accessible your nature reserves are?

It’s best to check the reserve’s website for up-to-date information about accessibility and each site’s particular requirements before you set off to visit; signs on-site will also tell you about any restrictions. If you see someone else with an assistance dog, please remember they are not pets and are highly trained, which means they will not wander freely around a reserve, will remain with their owner at all times, and are unlikely to foul in a public place.

How can I give my dog the exercise s/he needs?

There are lots of great ways for your dog to exercise outdoors and stretch their legs safely. Many parks, fields and wild places are dog-friendly and there are dedicated dog-walking fields, which have the added advantage of being securely fenced. There are also a growing number of activities and sports you can do with your dog like canicross, agility, hoopers and mantrailing.  

Can I still walk my dog on nature reserves where there are grazing animals?

Responsible dog owners and their dogs are welcome on some nature reserves, though there are some areas where dogs must remain on leads or cannot be permitted due to the delicate nature of some of the habitats we are working to conserve. Please take extra care when walking your dog near grazing livestock, keep them on a short lead and heed the warning signs on the nature reserves – they are there to protect you, other visitors, your dog and other animals. Please clear up after your dog as dog poo can cause illnesses in livestock, as well as to people and wildlife.

Why do nature reserves allow visitors with dogs when there is so little space left for wildlife?

Saving the UK’s wildlife and wild places and helping them to recover from past losses and damage has been a central aim of The Wildlife Trusts throughout our history. For more than a century, we have been saving, protecting and standing up for wildlife and wild places. To achieve this we believe that connecting people with nature is vital and we recognise that for many dog-owners this connection can be established whilst exercising their dog.

Ground nesting Woodlark and chick © Derek Middleton