Beach-leash issue in the spotlight as free-dog petition springs from Plett pooch furore

Report by: NIKKI RIDLEY

A massive row erupted on social media last week after Bitou Law Enforcement officers handed out fines to people accompanied by off-leash dogs on Robberg Beach - NIKKI RIDLEY reports

MANY dog-lovers and those fined expressed anger at the perceived unfairness of not being allowed to let dogs run free on the beach. There were also numerous comments along the lines of ‘Why are Law Enforcement bothering us when they could be chasing after criminals? And why so many law enforcement officers together (there having been five on the day the row erupted)?’

Chief Officer of Bitou Law Enforcement (BLE) Andile Sakati explained that his mandate is to ensure compliance with municipal by-laws, not other criminal activity or crime prevention, which is the responsibility of the SAPS.

He added that it is standard protocol that they work in groups for safety reasons and, in this case, as protection against aggression or attacks from canines. Something Sakati stated had happened before when an angry owner set his dogs on BLE officers.

However, the ‘row’ has led to local resident and ‘campaigner for the cause’ Diane Goosen setting up a petition on Avaaz - specifically to make the area between Sanctuary Beach and The Wreck a ‘run-free’ zone.

The petition states: “We understand the impact humans and animals alike have on the environment, however, we feel it is absolutely necessary to respect all game players here in our bay and assign a part of Robberg Beach (Sanctuary to The Wreck) to the many dog lovers and walkers to let their dogs run free in a responsible manner.”

In the aftermath of the social media activity, some residents have expressed concern regarding the impact on Robberg 5’s Blue Flag status should dogs be permitted off leash. But the Sanctuary to Wreck section of Robberg is not Blue Flag - if it were, dogs wouldn’t be allowed there at all, on or off leash, as per Blue Flag criteria for beaches, implemented nationally by Wessa (Wildlife and Environment Society of SA).

A spokesperson at the Wessa office in Cape Town confirmed that since dogs are not permitted on Blue Flag beaches anyway, on-leash or off, dogs running free on a neighbouring beach (Sanctuary to Wreck, specifically) will not affect the Blue Flag status of Robberg 5. As long as dogs don’t access or leave via Robberg 5.

At the time of going to press, a statement regarding the matter was awaited from Bitou ’s Beach Manager.

Dr Mark Brown of Nature’s Valley Trust affirmed some facts regarding both the law and common transgressions, arguments over which peppers online conversation every time there is a social media outcry about dogs on beaches.

“By-laws currently don’t allow dogs off leashes anywhere. My speculation is that data collected by Wessa beach stewards over this past season have highlighted the high transgression rate of certain by-laws, particularly those pertaining to dogs on leashes. I suspect it is this that has led to law enforcement being more pro-active on this front,” said Brown.

He added: “We have spent four years trying to educate people in Plett on the impact unleashed dogs have on breeding birds, and why the by-laws are there in the first place. We are by no means anti-dogs on beaches. We believe there are sustainable win-win solutions that can see us co-exist, or Share the Shore!”

Brown also commented in support of the need for an area where dogs can run free - perhaps to the benefit of more sensitive areas.

“Sanctuary to the Wreck has two pairs of white-fronted plovers trying to breed there. Due to disturbance, they have not raised a single chick in three summers.

“However, we feel this small sacrifice of two pairs is worth making, if it enables dog owners a safe legal place to let dogs off leash. The flipside is that we would want stricter controls on Lookout Beach, where 18 pairs of plovers, 10 pairs of oystercatchers, over 100 pairs of gulls, and several other species all breed.”

• To access the petition, Google ‘unleashed in Plett’. At the time of going to press, the petition already reached 384 signatures.