‘Be careful!’ shouted a woman on the North Wales beach. ‘The dog police are back!’ Using her walking stick to help her, Lynne stumbled towards the path leading off the beach as fast as she could, followed by her border terrier, Bonnie. But she was too late. The enforcement officer was already there, waiting. Lynne was given a fine and a severe lecture. Her crime? Taking Bonnie for a walk on the beach. She refused to give her name or address, so the officer tried to follow her home to find out.
Lynne isn’t alone. All over the country Britain’s dog owners are being persecuted, thanks to the increasingly tyrannical system of Dog Control Orders. These powers were first introduced in 2005, and no-dog zones have grown apace since then. Councils are under little obligation to consult or alert the public if they want to make an area off limits to our four-legged friends. A small announcement in a local newspaper is all the notice they need to give. Zealous bureaucrats have taken to issuing Dog Control Orders in places where people have walked their pets for generations. This is particularly irksome for pensioners, many of whom can’t drive or don’t own a car, and who have chosen to live near a public space to take their poodles for a potter only to find that the park, beach, path or whatever has become the subject of a control order. If they complain, the council will point them to the nearest place they can walk their dogs — the problem being that the area is often several miles away. What are the carless pensioners supposed to do?
Dog owners are fighting back. Last April, pub owner Willie Gregg organised a march in Portrush, County Antrim, to protest against the council’s plans to ban dogs from the beach all year round. His family has walked dogs on the local beach for five generations, he says. His protest — the ‘Barking Mad Protest Walk’ — drew more than a thousand people (and even more dogs). Similar protest marches have been held in St Ives, Northumberland, Pembrokeshire, and more recently in Croydon, south London.
The Kennel Club has set up a campaign, Access for Owners and Dogs, to battle dogphobic councils. The club hears of around 60 new dog exclusion zones a year, and contests about 30 of them. According to research by the Manifesto Club, the campaigning group of which I’m director, 219 no-dog zones now exist across London, covering a far greater area than the local bylaws that they were meant to replace.
Dog lovers complain that responsible owners are taking the rap for the irresponsible few who don’t look after their dogs properly and let them defecate all over the place. One protestor refers to the ‘bullying and often illegal manner’ in which controls are enforced. Many owners are starting to feel that the real crime is owning a dog at all — the zones are simply a trap to punish owners. In South Wales, a pensioner was pounced on by two enforcement officers who had been hiding in the bushes as she walked her dog in a field. The officers told her that the lack of signs was no excuse, since all the information could be found online.
Things are particularly bad in North Wales, where a group of locals are locked in conflict with Conwy council. In addition to introducing no-dog zones in areas frequented by dog walkers, the council has employed a private security company to enforce the new regime: black-shirted ex-soldiers paid on commission for each fine issued. Some elderly ladies are so afraid that they just carry their dogs around instead.
The dog war is being fought online, too. As well as posting lost-dog pictures and doggy advice, pro-canine social media groups have begun alerting owners and walkers to the underhand tactics frequently employed by councils. One Welsh dog group found that council officers had infiltrated its Facebook page, and promptly set about identifying and expelling informers.
There are other campaigns against dogs-on-leads orders and restrictions on the number of dogs that can be walked at once. The pro-dog brigades have had some success, too; petitions in Kensington and Chelsea forced the council into a U-turn. There are now similar disputes in Hounslow and Richmond. Another group is taking on North Lanarkshire’s decision to ban dogs from its premises and buildings, which would signal an end to dog training classes across the borough.
But even when Dog Control Orders are overturned, they reappear continuously, like hydras’ heads. At least now, the dog owners seem prepared for the fight ahead. ‘If the council tries to impose the ban covertly, I will organise a bigger and better and louder protest,’ says Willie, of the ‘Barking Mad’ march. ‘We’re not going to put up with this.’