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Letter: Damaging assumptions of dog walking in New Forest

SIR – The presumption that recreation and dog walking in particular is responsible for any decline in ground nesting birds seems to be accepted without question. As is the consequential disruption of the park’s aesthetic character by numerous signs visible from several hundred metres.

The worrying decline in the New Forest’s Dartford warbler, nightjar and woodlark populations is recorded in three surveys recently commissioned by the verderers as a part of the old Stewardship Scheme. They suggest a variety of possible causes, including recreation, cold winters, predation, trampling, grazing and other changes to habitat management. Choose to mitigate the wrong one(s) and by the time the error is realised the populations could be lost.

By contrast, a recent survey of nearby Dorset heaths shows a healthy increase in all three. So, it is unlikely to be cold winters causing the low numbers found in the Forest. The NPA’s State of the Park Report shows tranquillity, as a measure of human disturbance. It ranges from least to most in different areas, but the nightjar survey map shows a decline in population that is evenly distributed across the park. While Dorset heaths that are closer to urban areas, so historically host a higher density of dog walkers, have shown an average 35% increase within the three species, indicating neither recreation nor dog walking is a likely cause of the reported decline.

There is such uncertainty as to the reason for the losses in the Forest that relevant bodies with a duty to conserve wildlife in this national park need to guard against potentially damaging assumptions. Meanwhile, to meet their statutory duty “to conserve the natural beauty of the landscape”, obtrusive signage ought to be removed until the message is proven to be the cause.

Most importantly, to conserve three UK Priority Species whose survival depends upon good, timely management, as repeatedly recommended by recent surveys, commission a study without prejudice to establish why the New Forest poses a risk to ground nesting birds that is seemingly absent from neighbouring lowland heaths – although subject to similar or even greater recreational pressure.

Kathryn Whalley

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