As we emerge from winter, it’s a joy to hear the spring birdsong in the trees and skies around us, and to spend time exploring the heathlands of the Surrey Hills, often with our dogs.

However, it’s also a time to be mindful of the precious, almost invisible nests just steps away from our feet and the National Trust is reminding dog owners and walkers to remember to keep to the paths and ensure dogs are on a short lead from 1st March to 31st August.

The heathlands at Hindhead Commons, Headley Heath and Leith Hill’s Duke’s Warren provide the perfect breeding ground for some of the nation’s rarer birds such as the woodlark, the Dartford warbler and the elusive nocturnal nightjar.

Unlike most birds, these three build their nests on the ground rather than in the trees, making them extremely vulnerable. Their nests are cleverly camouflaged so as not to attract the attention of predators and are often unnoticed by walkers and visitors to the countryside.

Dogs, with their more powerful senses, are especially good at finding these treasures which are hidden to us. If disturbed, they may abandon their nests leaving their chicks to starve.

Dogs don’t have to catch birds to be causing huge distress to birds; just their constant presence throughout the day will stop many birds from settling and they’ll use up vital energy reserves constantly flying away and coming back. In many cases this will prevent them from egg laying, and in nests of eggs being abandoned.

Stephanie Fudge, National Trust General Manager for the Surrey Hills explains: “The numbers and diversity of these ground-nesting birds is so important for our environment and the food chain. Sadly, these birds are under pressure due to disruption by people and dogs.

“Their breeding success is critically dependent on not being disturbed. We love welcoming dogs and their owners to our places, but we would ask that visitors are considerate, keep to paths and keep their dogs on leads in sensitive areas. Together we can protect and nurture the success of these nesting families.”