As the days get longer and warmer, it’s natural for us to want to spend more time outdoors with our pets. Follow these steps to ensure that you, your pet, livestock and the wildlife live alongside each other and enjoy the countryside safely.
Walking in the countryside provides hours of unspoiled views and fresh air but care needs to be taken when you are out and about this spring. From late February to early summer, fields which may have been empty all winter may now contain horses, cattle or sheep. Take a detour to avoid these if you can and, if you must pass through, give the animals a wide berth, and keep your dog on a short lead – with one exception*. Stick to footpaths were possible and always make sure you close gates securely.
Take care walking through fields that contain sheep; they may be pregnant or have newborn lambs. Sheep tend to be especially flighty around lambing time and will panic and run at the slightest intrusion. Getting too close or allowing dogs to bark or chase sheep can cause pregnant ewes to abort, damaging both the sheep and the farming community as a whole; separation of lambs from their mother causes considerable distress to both.
Whereas sheep are likely to flee if startled, cattle and horses may kick out or give chase. Groups of youngsters and cows with young calves can be especially aggressive. * If you have cause to feel threatened, the Countryside Code recommends letting your dog off its lead and leaving the field by the nearest exit, quietly and quickly. If you keep your dog close to you, you are more likely to be injured compared with you both leaving the scene unattached. Your dog can run much faster than you and cattle are more likely to see the dog as the main threat.
Poo bags (and rubbish in general)
Owning a dog means having to perform the unsavoury but essential task of picking up dog poo! Always clean up after your dog, whether you are in the town or countryside, and be sure to take your poo bags with you. Dispose of them in a public bin or take them home if none is available.
Never leave them lying around, even if you intend to collect them later. There are lots of products designed to make carrying full poo bags less of a chore, such as The Dicky Bag, which avoids leaving them in the environment, where they can cause harm to wildlife and livestock.
The same applies to any rubbish, such as food wrappers or plastic bottles: always bin it or take it home, never leave it lying around. Rubbish is not only an environmental pollutant (plastic microparticles migrate into the soil wherever they fall) but it too can pose a danger to animals.
Spring means spring flowers, of course! But while daffodils, tulips and other flowers provide an early display of colour to our parks and gardens, the bulbs can be dangerous if our pets eat them.
All parts of daffodils and tulips are poisonous, with the bulbs being especially toxic. If eaten they can irritate the skin round the mouth, cause shivering, drooling, vomiting and diarrhoea or, in large amounts, seizures and heart palpitations.
Several varieties of lily are extremely poisonous to cats. All parts can be toxic: the leaves, petals, pollen and even the water they are sitting in! Effects vary from digestive upsets to severe and life-threatening kidney damage – find out more at icatcare.
If you suspect your pet has eaten any part of the above flowers (that includes grooming off some pollen that has brushed onto their coats) you should contact your vet immediately for advice.
We all know that swallows signal the arrival of spring. Many people feed their garden visitors over the winter but food shortages can occur in any season, so keep your feeders topped up all year round. It is best to feed good quality, purpose-grown bird food rather than kitchen scraps. Providing fresh water is equally important, particularly in times of drought or if temperatures drop below freezing.
If you are feeding peanuts during spring and summer, make sure the mesh of the feeder is small enough that the nuts can’t be removed whole (or avoid feeding them altogether) as whole nuts can choke the hatchlings and chicks.
Lovely as it is to see birds flocking to our feeders and fiddly as some of these are to take apart and clean, if you don’t do this regularly, you risk spreading lethal disease to your visitors. Wash feeders with hot soapy water, scrub off all old, caked-on food – ideally every week – then disinfect with a bird-safe product such as Ark-Klens. Find out more at the RSPB’s keep-your-garden-birds-healthy
Feeders should ideally be placed over hardstanding so that it’s easy to brush the area clean but even on grass, a frequent sweep away of uneaten food is useful. Otherwise, birds congregating on the ground to pick up fallen seeds are also at risk of contracting the distressing and ultimately fatal trichomonosis and other diseases.
Sick and injured birds
If you do find a sick or injured bird, you would normally be advised to take them to your local vet to be examined, but to wear protective gloves and to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, to prevent the spread of disease. Unfortunately, any bird that can easily be caught (by humans or predators) is often too ill to be saved, so that humane euthanasia is the right course of action to prevent further suffering.
However, the current avian influenza outbreak has changed that advice so that the current gov.uk. guidelines now are these:
“Do not touch or pick up any dead or visibly sick birds that you find. In Great Britain, if you find dead wild waterfowl (swans, geese or ducks) or other dead wild birds, such as gulls or birds of prey, you should report them to the Defra helpline (03459 33 55 77).”
Full information is at www.gov.uk/guidance/avian-influenza-bird-flu
If you find baby birds out and about and looking vulnerable, it is tempting to move them to a safer place or check them over for injuries – but whether you should depends on whether they are nestlings or fledglings.
If a young bird is unfeathered or covered only in fluffy down (a nestling) and has obviously fallen out of a nest by accident, it may be possible to put it back. Only do this if you are sure which nest the chick came from. It is a myth that handling it will cause it to be rejected (birds don’t have a good sense of smell) but it may be ejected from the nest again if its parents consider it unhealthy.
However, interfering with baby birds can often do more harm than good. It is completely normal for feathered fledglings to be hopping about on the ground unsupervised and likely that a parent bird is watching nearby, kept away by human presence, or off getting more food.
If the bird is in immediate danger, then you can attempt to encourage it to move to safer ground but, given the current gov.uk guidelines, you shouldn’t touch it directly. Removing a fledgling from the wild is a last resort and should only be done if it is clearly injured or – as judged by a period of observation from a distance – it has definitely been abandoned or orphaned. Find more advice at the RSPB.
Hedgehogs and other wildlife
You may be lucky enough to have other wildlife visitors to your garden. With the hedgehog population in decline – estimated to be as much as 50% reduced in rural areas – you can help by providing food, water and suitable environments in your garden. Loss and damage to habitat, through land development and uprooting hedgerows, means that hedgehogs are wandering more frequently into highly populated areas, at greater risk from cars and traffic.
You can help provide a safe and suitable habitat for visiting hedgehogs by leaving piles of leaves where they gathered and allowing parts of your garden to grow “wild” and somewhat messy, at least in parts. Log piles can provide shelter and safety for a curious hedgehog.
Hedgehogs’ principal diet is insects found in the soil and decaying leaf matter. If you wish to put food out for them, do not give them milk. They are actually lactose intolerant, so milk gives them diarrhoea. Suitable food includes tinned dog or cat food and crushed cat biscuits, alongside a supply of fresh, clean water.
Although hedgehogs are typically nocturnal, you may see them out and about in the day if food is scarce or if they have particularly high needs: nursing mothers, for example.
If a hog seems bright and active and there are no obvious signs of injury, you can offer them some suitable food and keep an eye on them from a distance. If a hog appears ill or injured, is very small, does not curl up or run away when approached, or you can see a large number of flies or maggots, then it is best to catch it (wearing thick gloves or using a towel) and take it to your nearest wildlife rescue centre or veterinary practice for examination.
For further information about the Countryside Code visit https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-countryside-code
For factsheets on all kinds of wildlife – from moles to mice and bats to badgers – and what to do if you are worried about an animal, go to the marvellous Tiggywinkles.org.uk