The Impact of Dog walking and Human Activity on over-wintering bird populations in Greyabbey Bay

Strangford Lough is an important area for marine wildlife and nature conservation not only within the UK, but worldwide. This is reflected in the host of designations it contains, such as an SPA (Special Protection Area), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and the Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). It is part of the Europe-wide network of Natura 2000 (N2K) and European Marine Sites (EMS), which aim to protect the range of important European habitats and species and to maintain the European Union’s overall biodiversity. Strangford Lough has also been designated as a Ramsar site under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

One of the strongest pieces of legislation is the SPA (under the EU Birds Directive) that governs the lough is in relation to its bird species. The Lough supports major concentrations of wintering waterfowl with peak counts in excess of 70,000 birds including 90% of the world’s population of pale-bellied brent geese. The disturbance of these birds has been raised as an issue by the EU commission (1992) as research has proven that disruption of bird populations has a significant negative impact on their feeding and breeding behaviour. The effect of disturbance can therefore have an impact on the success of bird species.

Strangford Lough, as well as a home to important wildlife is also an area used recreationally by a number of people. Among the key activities are dog walking, kite surfing, kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, swimming and fishing. There is always a challenge for recreational users to enjoy the shores and water in a safe and sustainable way. An initial report was commissioned in 2014 by the SLLP, Sport NI, NIEA and the National Trust (Mellon & Allen 2015) to investigate the impact of kite surfing on over-wintering bird populations. This study focused on four key areas around the lough and was brought about by anecdotal reports that this particular activity was causing a significant negative impact on over-wintering bird populations.

The report, published in 2015, revealed that kite surfing had a relatively small impact on the birds but the observation sessions did record that off lead dog walking was in fact a much more significant factor in disturbance. Results revealed that 33% of disturbance events were as the result of dogs off lead and that the response of birds to dogs was more severe than any other event. The current study was undertaken in response to the observations and recommendations of that report and to additional accounts from bird watchers in the area.

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