Anne Main leads a Parliamentary debate on problem of dog fouling in the countryside

14th March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered dog fouling.

The aim of this debate is to raise awareness of the ongoing problem of dog fouling, specifically in woodland and rural areas. I am a dog owner and a dog lover, and I must declare an interest: I sponsor a dog through Dogs Trust, the UK’s largest dog welfare charity, which runs initiatives throughout the country to encourage more responsibility among dog owners. Such efforts to encourage responsible dog ownership are welcome, but we need to do so much more. This debate is not about dogs or demonising dog owners; it is about the actions of irresponsible or ignorant dog owners and the environmental blight caused by dog poo that is dealt with inappropriately.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs discontinued the collection of figures on the number of fixed penalty notices issued for dog fouling in 2010, as it was viewed as an unnecessary burden on local authorities. I agree—it would be enormously burdensome to keep collecting those data. The most recent figures show that 2,082 fixed penalty notices were issued in 2009. I gave the Minister some pictures before the debate to illustrate the extent of the bagged dog fouling problem. I suggest that those figures do not show the true extent of the problem.

Experience and anecdotal accounts from across the country show that this really is a big problem. It affects tourism, local authorities, private landowners, forestry commissions and farmers, as well as the public at large. I will refer later to the challenges that farmers face as a result of fouling on their farmland, as they have particular concerns about livestock safety, but the two key strands to my argument are the burgeoning nationwide problem of the inappropriate disposal of dog poo bags and how we can encourage the correct disposal of dog poo.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Solutions need to be appropriate to the surroundings, well publicised and simple to execute. There is no doubt that dog fouling is an antisocial and environmentally damaging problem. It blights parks, forests and farmland as well as fields and verges. To compound the problem, we have seen the rise of the phenomenon of the ghastly dog poo bauble. Walkers, cyclists and families out with small children are greeted by lumps of dog faeces wrapped in pink, blue, black and even apricot-coloured plastic dangling from trees or bushes, or decoratively tied to people’s fences. Deer ingest the bags, children may handle the packages and cyclists have even ridden headlong into bags dangling from low-hanging branches. It is disgusting. Some dog walkers use sandwich bags, freezer bags or even supermarket carrier bags to scoop up the poo before lobbing it off into the environment, where it festers, causing blight for years.

I accept that many bags are biodegradable, but even if they are marketed as such, they still hang around for a very long time. According to the BBC’s Focus magazine, it can take six months or longer for even degradable dog poo bags to decompose. Although that is a marked improvement on the 500 years that scientists think it takes for a normal supermarket plastic bag to decompose, they are still a prolonged blight on the countryside landscape.

Initially, I thought that this foul practice of lobbing poo in bags into hedges and trees might be limited to a few irresponsible owners, but a quick trawl of social media and news archives shows that the problem is rampant and growing across Britain. It is estimated that local authorities receive upwards of 70,000 complaints a year about dog fouling, which is no small number. Local newspapers are filled with reports of the problems that it can cause, and Twitter is alive with concerns raised by people about the impact that dog fouling, particularly bagged dog fouling, has on their area.

Is it just me, Mr Hollobone? I do not understand the mentality of the person who enjoys walking on a beautiful woodland trail and goes to the trouble of purchasing and carrying a dog poo bag, picking up the often smelly deposit and even carrying it for a short distance, but then takes the opportunity to lob the carefully wrapped package up into the trees. I just do not understand it, but believe me, a quick look on the internet shows that that happens thousands of times every day.

Dog walking is one of life’s pleasures. Long rambles in the fresh air are good for dogs and their owners. Dogs Trust and many other groups strongly oppose blanket bans on dog walking in parks, beaches or countryside areas. I agree with them that that would be a great loss to communities of people who meet in those areas with their dogs and would directly punish the vast majority of dogs and their law-abiding owners just because of a select few offenders.

There are approximately 9 million pet dogs in the UK. One in four households in the UK has a pet dog, and they produce 1,000 tonnes of poo a day, or 365,000 tonnes a year. That is the weight of the Empire State building in New York or, to bring the problem closer to home, 5.6 times the weight of St Paul’s cathedral in dog excrement every year. We have a huge, smelly problem, and dog poo baubles are a relatively new and disgusting phenomenon. Online posts from Slough, Dartmoor, Rhondda, Glasgow and Kent, to name but a few places, show that this is a countrywide issue that we really need to tackle.

Keep Britain Tidy’s 2014-15 local environmental quality survey of England addressed both dog fouling and bagged dog fouling. Statistics that it gathered prove that dog walkers are far more likely to collect and dispose of dog poo when it is light and they feel they are being watched. In the light of that, Keep Britain Tidy started a “We’re watching you” campaign, which featured a pair of eyes that glowed in the dark and was designed to reinforce the message: “If you let your dog foul in an urban or rural area, someone may be watching you.” Often, of course, they are not. That campaign, which was trialled in 17 local authorities in 2014, led to a 46% reduction in recorded fouling and bagged fouling, but too often, the dog poo bauble is lobbed into the trees, away from sight.

It is argued that people should simply “bag it and bin it”. Would that it were that simple. Human nature often leads people to take an easy way out. Carrying a bag of poo for several hours on a family walk is often seen as an unattractive prospect, so, having been picked up, the poo gets lobbed into the bushes. We need to ensure that there are dog poo bins in appropriate locations, but that is only part of the solution.

The strategic placement of bins in rural parks and countryside dog walking hotspots is a key aid to prevent people from incorrectly disposing of dog poo bags. The National Trust is trying to address this issue on its sites by placing dog poo bins in the immediate area of car parks. Its studies show that, on leaving a vehicle, the vast majority of dogs relieve themselves within 50 metres of the vehicle. Having maps in car parks for country walk areas showing the placement of bins would also encourage more people to bag and bin poo, as they may know that the next bin is only a short distance away.

But that scheme cannot tackle the problem of bagged dog fouling in less populated woodland and countryside environments—open wild spaces where locating a bin would be impractical or even detrimental to the natural landscape. Lawrence Trowbridger, lead ranger at the National Trust’s Ashridge estate, said in an interview in 2015 that the solution was not just about introducing more bins but about

“challenging the mindset of the dog walker”.

I completely agree, so how do we change that mindset? How do we educate the public and steer them into good countryside practice?

I have a few suggestions, which I hope the Minister will look at. I believe that we need much better signage in areas such as country parks and forests to show where bins are located, so that people know how far they are from bins and whether bins are available past a certain point. Dog poo counts as waste refuse—not everyone is aware of that—so all waste bins, wherever they are located, should carry a logo showing that it is appropriate to put bagged dog poo in them.

For dog walkers further on in their walk and in a “no bin” area—an area of natural habitat—the sign at the entrance to the walk should show them that they ought to use the “stick and flick” approach, which the Forestry Commission advocates on its website, or cover the poo with leaves or vegetation. Having tried to stick and flick a pseudo-poo—it happened to be chocolate éclair, which did not flick at all well—on the Jeremy Vine show, I can say that that is actually quite an effective way of doing things. We need clear, easy-to-recognise graphics in parks, woodland areas and laybys close to footpaths to suggest those methods of disposal.

 

I recognise that there is a problem here. Organisations from the National Farmers Union to Keep Britain Tidy, which the hon. Lady referenced, strongly support “bag it and bin it”. Anything that detracts from that could cause confusion and undermine the essence of the issue, which is that we want dog owners to act responsibly, in the way that she describes. Does she think that we can have both messages?

 

I have done quite a lot of radio interviews on this today, and that is the tension. That is why signage is important. We should have easily recognisable graphics, because then people could see that there is somewhere to put the poo bags and that the poo will be collected. There is no point in bagging poo and then hunting in vain for a bin. That is when it gets lobbed.

We have to work with human nature. “Bag it and bin it” is one thing, but although that is the ideal solution, it is not the only one. I would like to expand on that. We need to look at Natural England’s “Countryside Code”, which is authorised by the Government to enhance comments on dog poo in the various situations that walkers find themselves in. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: that code says

“always clean up after your dog and get rid of the mess responsibly—‘bag it and bin it’.”

That is a simple message. Unfortunately, as I showed the Minister before the debate—I am happy to show other people—that simple message is clearly not working. It works a lot of the time, but if someone picks up their dog poo bag, feels that they do not know what to do with it and then lobs it, that is a far worse scenario. Deer and cattle are ingesting the plastic bags. We must tackle that.

Part of the issue is about education. Dogs Trust is working with a pet provider, running education classes for brownies, guides, scouts and so on to try to educate the dog owners of the future. This is a relatively new phenomenon: we did not use to have dog poo bags.

 

The hon. Lady is making a compelling case. I have attended walk-arounds with dog wardens in my constituency and they say that part of the process required is to educate not only dog owners and walkers but the general public, because the dog wardens cannot take action unless they see walkers depositing where they should not. Does she agree that part of the education process needs to be on the public, who could give information, to help the public help themselves?

 

I do. That is why I said that the approach of saying, “There are eyes watching you” does work. However, if someone is out walking their dog, do they want the grief of watching a person’s dog foul, going to find a ranger—assuming they know where he is—and having the argument about whether it was that dog given that the owner has walked off by that point? The situation is difficult, which is why we need a multi-strand approach.

I am not coming up with answers, but some suggestions: better signage, better placed bins, and a country code that says, “If you are here, this may be the appropriate thing to do. But if there are no bins, it would be inappropriate to bag.” We should get a set of graphics, which should be printed on dog poo bags to reinforce the message. There should be a dog poo bag code of disposal, a bit like for packets of cigarettes.

Dog poo bags are what plastic bags were yesterday. Given the number of pets in this country, I suggest that dog poo bags are as big an environmental problem as we had with people using disposable plastic bags from supermarkets. People use sandwich bags and all sorts, which flutter into waterways and float down into drains. We need to tackle that now and get a grip on it.

I would look at “The Countryside Code”. On farmland, I completely accept, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, that the NFU is opposed to dog poo being left in rural areas because of the risk posed to the health of cattle and sheep, which may eat the poo. We are back to the educative approach: the NFU has called for posters to be displayed in farmland areas to raise awareness of the problem and for a change to the “Scottish Outdoor Access Code”—I know this is a devolved matter, but it is worth looking at that—to explain the risks posed to cattle more clearly.

The NFU said that there has been an increase in cases of the disease Neospora, which can be spread by dogs that have eaten infected material from cattle, such as placentas from newly calved cows, and then through dog faeces. The parasite survives for several months and can contaminate the pasture and water supplies. I suggest that while that may have increased, that is one part of the entire problem that needs to be taken into account in the broad brush approach.

Of course, not all farmland has livestock on it, so we need to work with landowners to come up with signage to reflect the local disposal need. Improved signage should appear in lay-bys close to footpaths that cross farmland. People park up in lay-bys and ramble across farmland, where there will not be any bins, guidance or signage. Perhaps where the sign for the parking lay-by is could be an appropriate point to have a small graphic showing dog walkers how to deal with dog poo.

Finally, I know there have been suggestions about DNA testing. That theory has gained a lot of coverage in the media, being viewed by some as a silver bullet to the problems of dog fouling. However, to operate a successful DNA scheme, we would need all dog owners to volunteer to register their dog on a database. Then, using DNA technology, we would be able to trace exactly which dog had committed an offence.

There are fundamental flaws to that initiative at the present time. The major groups involved are not supportive and the scheme would come at considerable cost to local authorities in creating and filling a DNA register as well as carrying out the tests on the offending poo. As I said, we have abandoned the registering of dog fouling incidents; that process would be hugely costly and would not tackle the problem. We would need armies of people to police it. Improved signage should appear in lay-bys and close to footpaths—that would be more helpful. We have to get the public educated so that they feel that not dealing properly with dog fouling is as antisocial as smoking in public places.

I also see an issue in that the type of person who would allow their dog to foul would not register their dog on a DNA register anyway. We therefore need to tackle this problem with awareness and education. The Government have recently announced that they will come up with a new litter strategy. Since dog poo counts as refuse, it would be excellent if the work could incorporate that.

I have been told that I need to tell the Minister that he needs a PPS—a pragmatic poo strategy. I suggest that a pragmatic poo strategy would recognise both the failings of human nature and the need to enjoy the family walk and do the right thing. I look forward to hearing his comments. Hopefully, when he comes up with his new litter strategy, there will be input from landowners, councils, dog walkers, dogs trusts, forestry commissions and all those bodies who experience this problem and seek to encourage the public not to keep creating a mountain of refuse in our wildlife areas.

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At the conclusion of the debate
 

I thank the Minister for those very helpful comments. I suggest broadening the approach to include, for example, pet food manufacturers and vets. Clear guidance should be printed on everything—a bit like tobacco warnings—and there should be more use of advertising. As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), who speaks for the Opposition, said, people are not aware that they can use ordinary bins. There needs to be signage on ordinary bins to show that they can be used for dog poo waste. There should be a graphic on all these things.

I have explained what we need to be doing. It is really important that we get feed-in from countryside landowners, farmers and, as I said, vets and pet food manufacturers. Let us exploit the good will that is out there for those of us who love our pets. I would not mind reading on the side of my dog food tin about how to dispose of dog poop. We should all have that information. It should become a matter of course for this practice not to be tolerated. As the hon. Lady said, it is exactly like jettisoning stuff out of a car window. That used to happen such a lot, and it still does happen, but not as much.

Let me close with the poem that the Forestry Commission likes everyone to read:

“If your dog should do a plop, take a while and make a stop, just find a stick and flick it wide into the undergrowth at the side.

If your dog should do a do, you don’t want it on your shoe, find a stick, pick a spot, flick into the bushes so it can rot.

If your dog should do a poo, this is what you should do, just find a stick and flick it wide into the undergrowth at the side.

If your dog should make a mess there really is no need to stress. Find a stick, pick a spot, flick into the bushes so it can rot.”

With that, I rest my case, Mr Hollobone.

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