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Waste and Emissions»Tackling litter has just got a lot messier for you

»Tuesday, April 6,2010

Spring is a month late this year, by which I mean a month later than any year in the past decade. It could even turn out to be later than the springs of half a century ago, according to my friend Tim Sparks at Cambridge University, who collects data on leafing times and the nesting of birds. Whatever that tells us about climate change, it means the grass hasn’t grown and litter is more visible — not to mention present in enormous quantities.

Britain has become scruffier as well as colder, according to a report by Keep Britain Tidy. As parliament was told recently, motorway embankments are strewn with plastic bags and the laybys on A-roads are overflowing with fast-food packaging and plastic bottles. Although the amount of litter was down 4% last year — because councils spent record amounts clearing it up — overall standards of cleanliness declined.

Whenever I walk around the beautiful valley where I live, I encounter examples of the latest fad among fellow dog-lovers: plastic bags containing their pets’ deposits that are tied onto trees. At first I thought it was a local thing, this decorating of wayside vegetation with little bags of unpleasantness. As I took my occasional morning jog along the River Stour, on the Suffolk-Essex border, I put it down to one or two dotty dog lovers who mistakenly imagined that a park keeper would soon come along to collect their daily post. Now I realise it is a national trend. Keep Britain Tidy’s Local Environmental Quality Survey 2008-9 confirms: “A recent phenomenon has been finding bagged dog waste left either on the ground or hanging in trees and bushes.”

I have been racking my brains to figure out what these serial doggy-bag offenders think they are doing. From a medical point of view we know there is a problem with dog-fouling, because dog and fox waste often contains an infestation of the roundworm toxocara canis. If swallowed, this can result in nasty infections, fits, asthma attacks and even blindness. The under-fives are the most at risk. So it has been a legal requirement since 1990 that owners clean up after their dogs on pavements, paths, playing fields, beaches and throughout the urban environment, but not on agricultural land or woodland, which is where these doggy bags are now to be seen.

I am told by Dave Griffiths, the dog warden for East Hampshire district council and senior policy adviser to the National Dog Warden Association, that public attitudes changed for the better after dog fouling became an offence 20 years ago. People used to stare at you if you used a scooper; now they stare at you if you don’t. But after years of improvement, the figures show that dog fouling is getting worse again. It may be because some of the new urban macho-breed owners are unsavoury characters who don’t respond to stares. And in the countryside it may be that some people are just impossibly confused.

Dave thinks he knows what is going through the heads of the dotty doggy-bag leavers: “I’m doing the right thing but there isn’t a bin, so I’m going to hang it on a hedge as a protest.” In other words, the assumption is that somebody else will clean it up. What is difficult to understand, though, is why they bag the waste at all when, according to Dave, it is perfectly legal, on agricultural land, to leave it unbagged. By bagging it and not taking it away, they actually commit the offence of littering.

The extraordinary thing about the phenomenon is the lengths to which people go to do the wrong thing. Is it just a confused urban response to the countryside, where visitors don’t know the rules? Or have we become so infantilised by the advice of medical experts, or so terrorised by the welter of incomprehensible new laws, that we are afraid to use our common sense any more?

My own reaction, as a country boy, has always been to flick the offending deposit under the hedge or to ensure that the dog does his business in the long grass. The risk of a child playing there is minimal. While this may be entirely legal, I’m beginning to be persuaded, after talking to Dave and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), that we should scoop it, certainly in heavily used places such as the watermeadows of Dedham Vale. After all, there are now an estimated 8m dogs in Britain. And these pooches drop almost 1,000 tons of waste a day. Certainly we dog lovers are expecting our fellow users of the countryside to put up with a lot.

What are we to do, then, about the slovenliness of our fellow citizens when public spending has achieved little — and is, in any case, bound to be cut? The only hope, I think, is a revival of good citizenship. The laws on litter are mostly fit for purpose. We need to use them — by taking the registration numbers of drivers who drop litter and passing on to people like Dave the names of owners whose dogs foul the streets. We are going to have to write about litter for the parish magazine and press the council to put up signs discouraging people from hanging up parcels of dog poo. Apparently signs and bins work, although goodness knows I never thought I’d be advocating them.

In tune with this revival of citizenship, the CPRE is working on a guide that will show individuals how to take the owners of scruffy land to court. If we don’t want Britain to look like a dump, I’m afraid it is down to us.

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