Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Taking on the Dog Walkers

SRWT’s new DRAFT Management Plan ratchets up further the anti-dog walker stance. I predicted this would happen years ago when they took over the site and decided to use it for farming management (which they deviously call conservation.)

The main result of this will be that we will have more and more obtrusive self-important notices stuck up around Blacka, something that's become a major irritant in recent months.  What must it be like in their Stafford Road offices? A4 busybody notices everywhere I guess: Please wash up your own coffee mugs! Only use approved recycled stationery! It is the duty of all staff to keep the photocopy area tidy!

Here it's all justified as 'interpretation'; that's conservation-speak for propaganda, sometimes flatteringly described as 'education'. Isn't that just what we come here for - sanctimonious instruction forced upon us as if we're still at school? There's truly no end to the small-mindedness of these unimaginative managers forcing their one-sided view on us all.

Notices will mean nothing to those dog walkers who have been using Blacka for their activities (exercise for themselves and their pets) for many years and they will have some pretty sound arguments on their side.

I would be an unlikely campaigner on behalf of dog walkers but I don't like duplicity and I don't like managers constantly hectoring us with office notices stuck up at the entrances to land they claim is 'wild'  (for heaven's sake).

It's up to dog walkers to speak up against what this wildlife trust plans to do but here are some thoughts:

I suggest they respond in writing to SRWT and tell them, politely, to get s*****d, perhaps helpfully pointing out the contact details of a good taxidermist. They should then contact their local councillors.

The very least that the public should expect is that those working for the public should not go back on their word. Duplicity is not a nice thing.
Some more points I think are relevant:

1 When SWT was worried about lack of popularity and the huge and growing support for a petition against their management of the moor their Chief Executive appeared before a Council scrutiny committee and gave total assurance that SWT had no objection to dog walking off the lead. He made this unqualified.

2 During consultation with the Countryside Agency at the time of the CROW act leaflets*** were published insisting that whatever people were doing before the act would be unaffected by the new law. People have been walking dogs the way they do here for as long as the site has been public land. Public recreation of this kind is enshrined in the Graves Covenant. The most loyal lovers of Blacka should therefore not be hindered or harrassed. So references to the CRoW Act, to Public Rights of Way, Access Land and 'designation', in relation to dog walking are irrelevant. It is incompetence on the part of SRWT not to be aware of this;  I should add also on the part of some of the single interest groups who campaign for access: they have been responsible for some of the muddying of waters in respect of rights and access.

3 The dog walking issue has a special role in the differences between SWT and the regular users who have for long been the major interest group. Unlike horse riders, bikers, bird watchers and the conservation functionaries who organise, evangelise and champion their respective causes, the dog walkers themselves are more laid back and not given to fighting for their rights. Until, that is,  they see injustice whereupon they become a serious headache for officialdom in any form.

4 The petition organised in 2006 was against the change to the wording of the original Graves Covenant which pointed to public recreation as the primary purpose of Blacka. The Charity Commission had serious doubts about Blacka's being managed for conservation purposes and took a long time to agree to it . Officers in the city council eventually persuaded the CC to agree that conservation could be one of the management objectives but as a safeguard a clause was inserted to the effect that in any conflict between conservation and recreation it was to be recreation that would prevail. And to be very clear, local people walking with their dogs has been consistently over a very long period the most characteristic recreation pursuit on Blacka. Every month of the year. For decades at least before any mountain bike appeared here and well before horse riding became as prominent as it is now.

5 Following on from 4 above it is therefore to be understood that conservation is only to be allowed here by special consent and on condition that it does not undermine the prime purpose of recreation. As dog walking has traditionally been a major recreation activity here, perhaps the major one, it must be obvious that no conservation objective should put difficulties in the way of dog walking.

6 The idea that ground nesting birds should receive special protection assumes we all agree that managers should artificially maintain most of the land as a treeless zone completely against the will of nature and attractive to only a specified range of wildlife. Ground nesting birds are a problematic obsession for an organisation that calls itself a wildlife trust and claims to value the 'wilderness' feel of Blacka. These birds should be subject to the conditions that all wildlife is vulnerable to. The supposed 'iconic' ground nesting bird of the moors is the red grouse. It is only through persecution of predators over many generations that grouse have been encouraged to breed on these moors in the numbers they do. And we all know what happens to them afterwards. They are featherbedded with artificial habitats tailored to their needs and any potential natural threats trapped, poisoned or otherwise 'humanely' excluded so the birds are in good condition for the gun, and then the table.  Pet dogs are pretty inefficient predators and most can't compete with the natural and native predators that land managers persecute. Even here, in what they are pleased to call a nature reserve, the new management plan is suggesting that it will 'humanely' cleanse the area of foxes!! - is this just to meet some disputable and arguably bogus biodiversity target??

7 To say that dog walking outside the bird nesting season can go on as before is no concession at all. Firstly it is not in SRWTs power to make any concession. Dog walkers consider they have a right. And 1st March to 31st July is 5 months, hardly a short period in the year, and the most popular period of all for visits.

8 Dog walkers have traditionally been looked down upon by some other groups who generalise from one or two experiences in a way they would not accept regarding other activities. They do not seem to allow that dog walkers have a very important role in public land that is not duplicated by any other group. They typically visit regularly and therefore see things not seen by others. Their eyes on the site are a safeguard and they should not be discouraged.

9 The repeated references to conservation designations will not go down well with those of us who have known Blacka and its neighbouring land. These designations, SSSI, SPA, SCA and now Nature Improvement Areas were imposed from above in an undemocratic way often with no consultation with the public. Even when English Nature/Natural England contacted the local authority requesting public consultation this did not happen. Some might think it's a case of 'No consultation - No compliance'. I could not easily argue with that.
From this authoritative public leaflet distributed in 2000.

The beginning of the second paragraph is the important one: " As explained earlier none of this restricts what people already do with their dogs by right, permission or tolerance".  For many years, certainly long before SWT arrived on the scene, dog walking has been tolerated and permitted by those responsible for managing and by the charitable trustees. Indeed when notices appeared in spring on neighbouring moorland none appeared here. There were  none of those "Get a Grip" and warnings about lambs and ground nesting birds. Because managers recognised this as an area of recreation.

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