As spring arrives, the National Trust has issued a plea to dog owners and walkers: keep to the paths and ensure dogs are on a short lead from March 1 to August 31. 

Local heathlands including those across the Hindhead, Frensham, Hankley, Liphook, Bordon and Petersfield areas provide the perfect breeding ground for some of the nation’s rarer birds such as the woodlark, the Dartford warbler and the elusive nocturnal nightjar.

Unlike most birds, these three build their nests on the ground rather than in the trees, making them extremely vulnerable. Their nests are cleverly camouflaged so as not to attract the attention of predators and are often unnoticed by walkers and visitors to the countryside.

Dogs, with their more powerful senses, are especially good at finding these treasures which are hidden to us. If disturbed, they may abandon their nests leaving their chicks to starve. 

Dogs don’t have to catch birds to be causing huge distress to birds; just their constant presence throughout the day will stop many birds from settling and they’ll use up vital energy reserves constantly flying away and coming back. In many cases this will prevent them from egg laying, and in nests of eggs being abandoned.

Stephanie Fudge, National Trust general manager for the Surrey Hills, said: “The numbers and diversity of these ground-nesting birds is so important for our environment and the food chain. Sadly, these birds are under pressure due to disruption by people and dogs.

“Their breeding success is critically dependent on not being disturbed. We love welcoming dogs and their owners to our places, but we would ask that visitors are considerate, keep to paths and keep their dogs on leads in sensitive areas. Together we can protect and nurture the success of these nesting families.”