Dog walkers go into battle to continue to use beaches
The general public doesn't often feel sympathy for politicians – although occasionally, when they are faced with complexities like the ones thrown up by the case of Abu Qatada last week, we may share in their frustrations.
But anyone neutral might like to spare a thought for the hapless decision-maker who has to contemplate issuing a dog ban.
Excluding these pets from any public space is likely to create a minefield of emotion, but banning man's best friend from beaches is guaranteed to light a flame of reaction more certainly than any other edict short of a declaration of war.
The Westcountry saw an example of "dog versus sandcastle" earlier this month when St Ives councillors voted for a complete ban on canines on the town's main bathing beaches during the summer.
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The meeting where the decision was made was packed and emotions were running high as opinions became more and more polarised.
One resident said: "These are the premier bathing beaches in the country. Seasonal exclusions ensure they are going to be as clean and safe as possible."
And in complete contrast Barbara Nolan, of the St Ives Dog Owners' Group, said after the meeting: "They didn't listen to the consultation. They've had a consultation and now they've ignored it."
Councillors voted to do away with rules that allowed dog walkers onto key bathing beaches before 8am and after 7pm in the summer. From May next year dogs will be banned from Porthmeor, Porthminster and Porthgwidden beaches for the duration of the main holiday season.
The St Ives ban joins an increasing number of dog exemption orders on beaches across this region – and beaches, as every reader will know, happen to be very popular places when it comes to going for a "walkies" with Bonzo, Bowser or Bingo – or whatever a seaside-loving dog's name happens to be.
Cornwall County Council says there are 51 beaches west of the Tamar where dogs are welcome all year round – and 41 which are open to them on a seasonal basis, from Easter to October.
"Beaches where dog bans apply are patrolled on a regular basis," a spokesman told the Western Morning News.
"Persons with dogs on the beach during the ban period will be issued with a fixed penalty notice for £80 and asked to remove their dog from the beach immediately."
As various beaches around Cornwall operate different types of ban according to the time of day or year, canine-lovers are able to glean specific and up-to-date information on the council's website.
Other local authorities with coastal zones in the Westcountry take differing lines.
A spokesman for North Devon Council (NDC) told the WMN: "We do not impose dog bans on any of our beaches or open spaces. NDC-owned beaches include Wildersmouth, Hele, Ilfracombe Harbour Beach, as well as Lee Bay, Woody Bay and Heddon's Mouth.
"However, most beaches in North Devon, for example, Woolacombe, Croyde, Instow and Putsborough, are privately owned, and therefore it is up to the owners whether they ban dogs.
"Dog owners would need to contact each private beach to find out what their situation is."
In the South Hams the district council has imposed a seasonal ban between May 1 and September 30 on South Sand at Salcombe and Mothwell Sand at Hope Cove – while Bigbury and Bantham have partial bans.
Private bans have been introduced by owners at Blackpool Sands, Mothecombe Beach, Wembury, Sandy Parlour and Challaborough.
And, of course, it's not just a matter of a contentious seaside decision being made by a council, or a sign going up at the entrance to a beach. As the spokesman for North Devon Council told us, even though there are no dog bans on NDC-owned beaches or open spaces, dog owners "still need to ensure they clean up after their pets".
"Anyone caught walking away from their dog's mess faces a fixed penalty of £75, which is reduced to £60 if they pay within 14 days. However, if the fine isn't paid, the owner can be taken to court and prosecuted."
It goes without saying that one of the main reasons for any dog ban is the general lack of toilet training which is simply part of nature when it comes to pets. The average two-year-old human is better prepared in the matter than most dogs of any age – and apart from being extremely unpleasant stuff, canine faeces can cause serious health problems.
Toxocariasis, which is spread from animals to humans via infected faeces, is a rare infection caused by roundworm parasites. And it often hits the news because it can cause partial blindness, especially in children.
However, the word "rare" must be emphasised. Information on the NHS Choices website states: "It is hard to estimate exactly how many cases of toxocariasis occur.... One researcher estimates that there are around 50-100 cases of the ocular form of the condition each year in the UK.
"However, many people have toxocara antibodies in their blood, which indicates that they have been exposed to the parasites."
But as long as there is an unwritten equation going on in people's minds that dog poo can equal blindness, it seems that canine lobbyists will have an uphill struggle when it comes to fighting bans.
You would expect the magisterial Kennel Club to take a sensible line on all this – and indeed it does. A spokesman said: "At the start of summer the Kennel Club launched a targeted responsible dog ownership campaign, in which we worked with local authorities to hold fun and informal community days to educate the public on responsible dog ownership.
"The Kennel Club sees these kind of events as being far more effective in tackling dog-related issues, through education, rather than implementing blanket bans for dogs – which really only have a negative effect on responsible owners – the minority of irresponsible owners are unlikely to pay attention to any dog control orders anyway."
So what is the Kennel Club's take on the contentious issue of dogs on beaches? I asked the organisation's secretary, Caroline Kisko.
She said: "Beaches are always very popular with dog walkers, as they provide open spaces for dogs to be exercised off the lead, and it is a shame when local authorities deem it necessary to implement dog bans in these areas. These bans are often in response to issues that can easily be dealt with in a different, more proactive, way – such as ensuring that enough dog waste bins are provided, and that dog owners are educated in the need to pick up.
"The Kennel Club believes that dogs and their owners should be allowed to make use of Britain's coast, so long as dogs are kept under effective control," added Ms Kisko.
"Government statistics have shown that as many as 50% of all walkers have dogs with them, which represents a huge proportion of society, making it important that this demographic has access to beaches.
"Dog owners in St Ives, so long as they are being responsible, should have as much right as other walkers to enjoy the beaches in the area.
"The Kennel Club campaigns for fair access for dog walkers across the country."
Mums and dads whose small children play in the sand may well disagree.
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