Thursday, 13 January 2011

For Sale Your Favourite Dog Walks? - By Stephen Jenkinson

Stephen Jenkinson of Access and Countryside Management has written a very interesting article on how the proposed sale of our forests will impact the dog walkers. Below is it text of the article (copied and pasted with Stephen's permission). 

The photos are scans of the magazine. 

For sale: your favourite dog walks?

If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise; your dog walks are under threat.
Recent Government moves towards selling off Forestry Commission (FC) land in England, could mean dog owners being banned from their favourite walks, having to pay a hefty fee to park, or buy a permit to let their dogs off lead. Dog owners in Scotland and Wales could similarly suffer.

At a time when rising unemployment and the need for more healthy lifestyles means that access to the countryside is needed more than ever, the Government wants the freedom to sell off 450,000 acres of England's most loved woodlands, restarting what the previous Conservative government commenced 20 years ago.

The current Government's desire to be able to sell off FC land for "any purpose or unconditionally" was described as "chilling" by Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, in the recent House of Lords debate on the Public Bodies Bill. She added: "it is hard to conceive why Ministers want such draconian powers, unless it is the Government's intention to dispose of much or all of the Forestry Commission's land."

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and former board member of the previous government's Countryside Agency said: "We fear that the effect will be the wholesale loss of public access and enjoyment.  There has been no consultation about this, which could have a damaging effect on people's lives.  We hope the Government will rethink these devastating proposals."

10 reasons why your walkies are at risk.

Despite Government claims to the contrary, and the fact that dogs are taken on 48% of all countryside walks, your access to land currently owned by the FC in England is not protected because:

  1.  Current limited access rights to FC land are heavily dependent on goodwill. If a new private landowner wants to use the land for another purpose, like a leisure complex or golf course, the access rights can be terminated.
  2. This already vulnerable right of access is conditional on keeping dogs on a lead everywhere between 1 March and 31st of July each year; the FC generally doesn't enforce this, but new owners are free to do so.
  3. Local councils cannot impose their sometimes draconian Dog Control Orders on FC land. Once it is sold, councils are free to limit the number of dogs people can walk, and impose on-lead restrictions 365 days a year.
  4. Car parking is not protected, so the new owners could make it illegal to drive into the forest or charge you whatever they wished for off-road parking.
  5. Even if FC land is sold to charities, history shows that dog owners are likely to face new restrictions.
  6. There is no requirement on new owners to continue to allow dog sports like sled racing and Cani-X.
  7. Even the most responsible professional dog walker could be banned or forced to pay huge access fees which would then be passed onto pet owners.
  8. When restrictions are needed to protect wildlife, the FC keeps these to a minimum; private landowners need not stick to this principle.
  9. FC rangers are there to help the public have a safe and enjoyable visit rather than promote the forest as a commercial enterprise for private shareholders.
  10. No other private or public sector landowner in living memory has ever provided as much dog-friendly access as the Forestry Commission.

Going, Going, Gone?

Here's what a Government sell-off of FC land could mean for dog-friendly places recently featured in Your Dog.

Coatham Wood - Teesside:  dog owners charged to use the ground-breaking dog activity trail 

Jeskyns Wood - Kent: Off-lead access banned in all areas for 5 months of the year and dog owners charged to use fenced-in training area

Keilder Forest - Northumberland: a decades-long history of husky dog racing and Christmas sled rides banned or made too expensive

Grizedale Forest - Cumbria: dog owners pushed out of the forest and forced to walk their dogs near sheep, increasing conflict with local farmers

Westonbirt Arboretum - Gloucestershire: cut-price annual parking permits for dog owners stopped; forced instead to pay increased fees at each visit or go elsewhere

Pembrey Forest - Carmarthenshire: the local council's proposed ban on walking more than 3 dogs would apply once the land was sold off.

"Impossible" future for sled dogs

A major sell-off of Forestry Commission land could wipe out sled dog racing in the United Kingdom, spelling disaster for thousands of dogs like huskies and Alaskan malamutes, that depend on FC tracks for their daily exercise and mental well-being.

The FC currently gives access for sled dog racing and training where it can, but this is not legally-protected. If the
woodlands are sold off, new owners could ban sled dogs from the outset, or charge such exorbitant fees that only the richest people would be able to compete.

Speaking for the British Siberian Husky Racing Association, regular competitor Caroline Kisko said: "The sport is
heavily dependent on Forestry Commission land. Their cooperation ensures we can keep the dogs fit and healthy by running them in harness 3 or 4 times a week for up to 6 miles. If we lose this access it will be nigh on impossible to find suitable land."

Dog-friendly treaty in doubt

As a public declaration of its commitment to being dog-friendly and imposing the minimum of restrictions, at Crufts in 2005 the Forestry Commission signed a 20 point concordat with the Kennel Club stating that it will, for example:
  • Develop new ways to improve how dogs and their owners use the forest.
  • Introduce positive measures to make dog owners feel welcome, such as water bowls and information points at visitor centres
  • Only seek restrictions on dogs in specific circumstances, such as around children's play areas and at particularly sensitive times or places for wildlife.
Under current government proposals, there is no guarantee any of the Forestry Commission's dog-friendly policies will continue. You can read the full at-risk concordat at:

What you can do?

More than ever, this is the time for dog owners to make their voices heard.  MPs from every part of the UK will have a vote on what happens to FC land in England, so you can make a difference by urging them to:

  • oppose any sell-off of Forestry Commission land
  • if a sell-off  is inevitable, ensure the Government works with the Kennel Club and other access organisations to ensure the real value of public access is protected in every case. 
Readers in Scotland and Wales are also urged to write to their representatives in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, as they are up for re-election in 2011 and could attempt a similar sell-off.

You can find out who your MP and other elected representatives are at:

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