PASSIONS are running high over the “demonisation” of dog walkers on Freeman’s Marsh in Hungerford, it was claimed this week.
Signs have reportedly been uprooted and defaced following claims last week that roaming dogs were responsible for a decline in ground-nesting birds and other wildlife.
Local dog owner, birdwatcher and naturalist, Dr Declan Barraclough, said: “Feelings are running very high in the town over this.
“True, the marsh does have problems but it’s still an area rich in wildlife and ensuring its survival will depend on informed management – not crude demonising.
“I’ve walked the marsh four or five times a week for the past 30 years.
“Dog walkers are the ones who report injured cows or dead swans.
“But people are so angry at the way the issue has been handled, they are digging their heels in.”
Dr Barraclough, a retired head of research into land issues for Defra, added: “The Town and Manor of Hungerford brought in restrictions on dogs off leads some years ago.
“The introduction was handled badly and alienated many dog walkers because completely unsubstantiated assertions were made about the alleged impact of dogs on unspecified ground-nesting birds.
“Only a few years ago, Natural England severely criticised the management of the area, citing overgrazing by cattle and inappropriate weed management as the reason the for the decline in the status of this Site of Special Scientific Interest.
“The burning of areas of sedge grass in the 1970s to improve cattle grazing, and the removal of certain bushes has been particularly unfortunate for small birds such as greenfinches, chiffchaffs and willow warblers, grasshopper warblers and rarer visitors such as shrikes.
“Against that background, the demonising of dogs was widely perceived as a crude and simplistic smoke screen to divert attention away from the poor management of the area.”
He said that, while otters, tawny owls and kingfishers are thriving on the marsh, the unexpected decline of previously locally abundant species such as little grebes and water voles needed investigating.
Dr Barraclough concluded: “The marsh is, for many, the jewel in Hungerford’s crown.
“We are extraordinarily lucky to have it.
“But balancing its role as town park and nature reserve is going to require some very deft footwork.”
n WHAT do you think? Is the Town and Manor right to blame dog owners for the decline in species such as ground-nesting birds or is that an oversimplification?
Have your say – email reporter John Garvey at firstname.lastname@example.org