Calls for new dog licences to better control unruly pets in England

<span>The UK’s rising dog population could harm livestock and vulnerable wildlife.</span><span>Photograph: Farlap/Alamy</span>
The UK’s rising dog population could harm livestock and vulnerable wildlife.Photograph: Farlap/Alamy

Dogs and their owners must be brought to heel with the return of dog licences, registration for breeders and a ban on toxic flea treatments, campaigners have said.

The activists from the Right to Roam campaign want a deal for dogs to protect farmers’ livestock and vulnerable wildlife from being menaced by Britain’s rising dog population and out-of-control dog behaviour.

They are calling on the next government to introduce measures to better control dogs alongside a new right to roam for England that matches the freedoms allowed in Scotland.

“We love dogs and we recognise their value in getting people out into the outdoors,” said naturalist and author Amy-Jane Beer of the Right to Roam campaign. “For a lot of people, the dog is their connection with nature, but dogs bring challenges and that requires a renewed social contract between dog owners and nature where we manage that relationship with care.”

Beer, who is a dog owner, said it was “absurd” that the government had no idea of the UK’s dog population, which is thought to have soared since the Covid-19 pandemic and may exceed 12 million. There are many reports of “pandemic puppies” having behavioural problems and being poorly trained. Farmers have reported an increase in the number of sheep being killed by dogs since the national lockdowns.

Rangers for wildlife charities routinely say that out-of- control dogs and aggressive owners are their biggest visitor-related problem.

The Right to Roam campaigners argue that increasing access to the countryside – while excluding dogs from certain sensitive, nature-rich sites – alongside better regulation of dog ownership will help farmers and wildlife.

Of current open access land in England, 52% is also designated as a national nature reserve or site of special scientific interest.

“Wildlife and dogs are all being forced into the same spaces, while arguably people are excluded from more robust bits of habitat,” said Beer. “We’re not asking for a right to take dogs into sensitive places or let them run amok in pastures, but if we had more places to go we could also have more places where we shouldn’t be allowed to take dogs.”

The campaigners say that bringing back the dog licence – which was abolished in 1987 but is still mandatory in Northern Ireland where it costs £12.50 a year – would enable online education via an application process. Potential dog owners could learn how to train their dogs, better understand animal welfare issues and receive information on appropriate breeds for their lifestyle as part of their application.

The Right to Roam campaign also wants everyone who breeds dogs to require a licence, a proposal that 76% of vets support. Commercial dog breeders have to be licensed but people can produce up to three litters a year without being registered.

The campaigners also want a dog walker’s code as part of a revived Countryside Code, and an accreditation body for professional dog walkers.

They also want to stop the use of spot-on tick and flea treatments that use parasiticides that are banned in outdoor agriculture but still used widely in the pet industry. Research this year found that wastewater from sewage treatments is a major source of fipronil and imidacloprid pollution in rivers because people wash their hands after administering spot-on dog treatments.

“Lack of attention and lack of regulation over 35 years has just allowed a problem to build up and it’s becoming apparent because there are more dogs in the country than there’s ever been,” said Beer.

Related: Countryside access curbs in England ‘cost six times’ Scotland’s right to roam

Romilly Swann, who farms organic sheep and is a supporter of Right to Roam, said she had experienced sheep-worrying by dogs and has daily problems with dog excrement on her pastures, which can contain parasites that can kill ewes and their lambs.

“The Right to Roam policy of registration for owners and dogs is very sensible,” she said. “As farmers, we’re expected to have every single animal electronically tagged so it is fully traceable. It seems crazy that isn’t the case for dogs as well. Owners need to be answerable for the behaviour of their dogs. People don’t understand that their dogs are predators and even the kindest dogs can have a moment.”

“Education is always the key,” she added. “Farmers aren’t just trying to keep people off their land, it’s about people understanding land use well enough to be able to access it respectfully. It’s about keeping animals safe and everybody happy.”

Richard Hudson, a mixed farmer in North Yorkshire who erects notices on footpaths through his fields informing walkers about his livestock and vulnerable wildlife such as ground-nesting birds alongside his name and number, said his positive approach worked well although he’d still experienced some “nasty” incidents with dogs attacking his sheep.

According to Hudson, wider right to roam access in England could help farmers by providing walkers with alternative spaces and paths so they could avoid fields of livestock.

“People are very passionate about their dogs and anything like this [call for greater regulation] will cause controversy but I would like the conversation to begin,” he said. “We have a nature and biodiversity crisis and any way to increase connection to the land would be great. We need some bold solutions.”

Phil Stocker, the chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said dog attacks on sheep were still a growing problem and welcomed the proposals. “We’ve been calling for the return of dog licensing and a central database to aid the traceability of dogs for some time. Increasing awareness and education of dog owners is something we’d support. What we wouldn’t agree with is increasing public access on farmland, which is still a cause for concern.”

Scotland’s dog walkers’ code

The Right to Roam campaign says this could be the basis for a similar code in England but with additional guidance on not disturbing wildlife.

  • Do not allow your dog to approach animals or people uninvited

  • Don’t linger if wildlife is disturbed by your presence

  • Where possible avoid animals – release your dog if threatened by cattle

  • Always keep your dog in sight and under control – if in doubt use a lead.

  • Don’t take your dog into fields of vegetables and fruit unless there is a clear path.

  • Finish the jobbie – bag it and bin it. Take it home when bins aren’t available.