Dogs on lead: council explains controversial decision to stop pets running free

·4-min read
Brighton and Hove City Council and Brighton Dogwatch battle with one another over Waterhall rewilding plans
Brighton and Hove City Council and Brighton Dogwatch battle with one another over Waterhall rewilding plans

THE CITY Council has explained its decision to push ahead with controversial rewilding plans after receiving heavy criticisms from a campaign group.

Brighton and Hove City Council came under fire in a report produced by Brighton Dogwatch, who claimed dog walkers were being forced out from the disused Waterhall golf course, near Westdene in Brighton, which it says will see alternative facilities “overwhelmed”.

Rewilding plans will see cattle introduced to the area, as well as strict rules seeing dogs kept on their leads, rather than being allowed to run free, as they currently are.

The group also called into question the accuracy of surveying methods used to form the basis of the city council’s plans; it claimed Waterhall itself should have been analysed, rather than “adjacent land”.

The Argus: Dog can currently run free in Waterhall
The Argus: Dog can currently run free in Waterhall

Dog can currently run free in Waterhall

Responding to the allegations, a council spokesman said: “Waterhall is unique in being a home to two critically endangered species. For this reason, councillors on the environment, transport and sustainability committee unanimously agreed that dogs will need to be kept on leads there.

“We reject the suggestion that other sites will be overwhelmed. There are many sites nearby which offer the opportunity to let a dog off the lead. This includes a large site the size of over 50 football pitches in Lower Waterhall, Withdean Woods, Westdene Woods, Green Ridge, Devils Dyke, Wild Park, Ditchling Beacon and Stanmer Park.

“The ecological basis of the decision was made using findings by local surveyors and through using a clear understanding of the established negative impacts of free ranging dogs on nature, including our native Downland flora, birds, mammals and reptiles. These impacts include trampling, direct predation, displacement, increased disturbance and stress, transmission of diseases to people and wildlife, enrichment of soils and pollution of waterbodies.

“Although the wish is to provide as much clarity as possible, best practice dictates that we refrain from disclosing exact locations and details of survey data for protected species. This is standard practice within ecological surveying for species that are particularly vulnerable to an increased risk of harm or disturbance.”

Brighton Dogwatch said in its report that they were informed that the new Waterhall plans would allow “people and dogs to visit to appreciate nature” but feels this standpoint has now changed to “pasture grazing” for cattle “with some public access”.

The city council rejects this, saying: “People and dogs are welcome to visit and appreciate nature. The intention is for the recently designated Local Nature Reserve to remain a place for people to walk freely and enjoy, and for it to be utilised for nature engagement activities with the local community, local schools, vulnerable adults, universities and wellbeing groups.

“Large numbers of off lead dogs, as found currently utilising the former golf course, are not commensurate with the wider community being able to benefit from the site equally.

“A key part of the process of rewilding Waterhall requires restoring the chalk grassland. This grassland provides a unique and bountiful downland ecology which supports a dizzying array of pollinators, insects and therefore birds, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Species-rich chalk grassland develops with gentle grazing which keeps back grasses, exposes chalk and allows wildflower to take hold. It is perfectly normal for dogs to be asked to be kept on leads in nature reserves or where cattle are present.”

Both sides agree there has been an increase in the use of Waterhall, though Brighton Dogwatch blames this on parking charges being introduced at other dog walking spots, namely Stanmer Park.

The Argus: New barbed wire fencing at Waterhall
The Argus: New barbed wire fencing at Waterhall

New barbed wire fencing at Waterhall

“There is likely to be many reasons why we have seen an increase in the use of Waterhall, so we would dispute the claim that it is solely down to one reason. This has no basis in data,” the city council spokesman said.

“Prior to being designated as a nature reserve, members of the public had very limited access to the golf course. This access has now increased which would always see a rise in use. Many residents also enjoyed greater access to nature during periods of lockdown.

“Income from car parking charges in Stanmer Park is directly invested into Stanmer Park and the wider estate to continue the investment in, and protection of, important historic structures, and management and maintenance of the park.”

Concerns were raised by an individual last week, who claimed the newly-installed fencing poses a danger to wildlife in Waterhall, as holes in the fencing were not large enough to allow animals through.

There were also fears for deer jumping over the barbed wire fencing.

The city council denies this would be an issue, arguing smaller animals can burrow underneath the fencing, and that deer would not be injured.

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