Every dog has its day – but will it be at the beach? Aoife Moynihan does some digging.

The issue of off-leash dog areas on Palm Beach North and South Mona Vale Beach is turning into a dog’s dinner, with strong opinions in both camps.

Northern Beaches Council was all set to conduct a trial last year which would have allowed dogs off-leash on sections of these beaches at controlled hours. But council did not know that an administrative error by the State Government meant existing plans of management (POM) for those and many other areas would have to be re-submitted – along with the necessary public consultations. Tails definitely stopped wagging.

The 75,000 dogs registered on the Northern Beaches currently have 29 off-leash areas to frolic in, from fully-fenced dog parks to foreshore reserves, including five swimming areas.

For perspective, Mosman Council allows dogs to swim in four areas (not the popular Balmoral), whereas dogs are not permitted on any beach in Waverley and Randwick councils, with or without a leash.

From October to December 2023, there were 47 dog attack reports on the Beaches, 34 of which were on animals, some native. Many residents are concerned about wildlife if dogs are leash-free on beaches.

A 2020 off-leash trial on Station Beach was scrapped when the Land and Environment Court found council didn’t obtain an environmental impact statement. Then, it was discovered that dogs would threaten the white seahorse species.

Council subsequently carried out a feasibility report on trialling Palm Beach North and South Mona Vale Beach as off-leash areas.

A draft review of environmental factors (REF) attracted 879 submissions during an exhibition in August/September 2022, with potential environmental impacts associated with the trials assessed as negligible.

In addition to the need to submit new plans of management for Palm Beach North, council also discovered last year that the trial site – and part of the South Mona Vale trial site – was on Crown Land. Council is negotiating a transfer with Crown Lands so it can conduct the trial.

Council told Peninsula Living Pittwater (PL) that preliminary work on a new Governor Philip Park POM, has progressed. Stakeholder engagement is due to commence soon, followed by community engagement shortly after.

The South Mona vale POM has been completed and endorsement by Crown Lands is expected mid-year, before public exhibition.

It is a costly process, with the POM preparation, masterplan, environmental assessment and community engagement expected to cost $80,000 for Palm Bach and $60,000 for Mona Vale, plus a ‘significant investment of staff resources’. The council said that full costs will be determined if trials proceed, as additional costs will be incurred.

Mr Geddes and Frosty enjoying Spit West Reserve in Mosman

Mitch Geddes from the group Pittwater Unleashed, which has over 6,000 Facebook followers, tells PL that although they are grateful for the ‘slew of council resolutions passed’ supporting off-leash areas, they feel a ‘lack of urgency’ progressing these plans.

“We need to provide for wider off-leash options.” Mitch Geddes, Pittwater Unleashed

“With a staff of something like 1,800, it seems there are plenty in the organisation ready to impose new bans forcing families with dogs to the fringes, but not a single individual prepared to bang the table in defence of those families sidelined by these bans,” Mr Geddes claims.

Pittwater MP Rory Amon also called for the council to expedite the trials and ‘let families enjoy a small part of the beach with their dogs’.

“Forces have worked to subvert the will of our community. This cannot continue,” Mr Amon said in January.

Mr Geddes says he understands the concerns, but says the sites and operational times were carefully selected.

“We know dogs at the beach can be a nuisance – sandy paws over beach towels and the occasional stolen sandwich,” says Mr Geddes. “This is why the council has proposed areas that get very little use, and the proposed off-leash hours are off-peak.”

Pittwater councillor Miranda Korzy says that the proposed off-leash hours are times when the majority want to be there, especially in summer.

“People are coming home from work and going for a swim,” she says. “Why should they have to deal with animals on the beach?”

Ms Korzy stresses she is not anti-dog. “I’ve got a dog,” she says. “She loves running in the water and splashing around, but I don’t think that I have the right to take my dog wherever I want.”

Ms Korzy says she has been contacted by the elderly and parents with toddlers saying that dogs have bowled them or their children over.

“I have a friend who had a dog wee on her towel!” she adds.

There are also concerns about costs. Ms Korzy believes the council has spent $1.3 million to date, mostly on legal fees, in both the ditched Station Beach trial and the ongoing Palm Beach and Mona Vale trials.

As for concerns about owners picking up dog excrement, Mr Geddes says the community that was using Station Beach before the trial was canned was intent on keeping the area clean, having fought for so long for the right to walk there lawfully.

Ms Korzy says not all dog owners are responsible.

“Quite often, the dogs run off while the owners chat,” she says, “And they can’t see what their dog is doing.”

Ms Korzy says that people are afraid to speak out because of backlash from dog owners.

“There are marine scientists from the area who have said things to people with dogs on the beach, and they’ve been abused,” Ms Korzy says. “It’s just horrible what happens.”

She says the review of environmental factors carried out by the council is flawed.

“Dogs were on the beaches when the surveys were carried out,” Ms Korzy says. How can you survey to see what wildlife is there if dogs are present?”

PL spoke with local wildlife rescuer John* who said a lot of what he sees goes unreported.

John tells us of two turtles who came up onto North Palm Beach in early March on two different days. One was unwell.

“It was an extremely rare hawksbill turtle,” John says. “It was exhausted and came to rest up on the beach. I took it to Taronga Zoo, but unfortunately it died two days later.”

A hawksbill turtle was rescued at North Palm Beach

A spokesperson from Taronga Zoo has confirmed that a hawksbill sea turtle was brought to the zoo’s Wildlife Hospital from Palm Beach.

“The turtle was severely emaciated and unfortunately did not survive,” the spokesperson said.

John agrees with Ms Korzy about the environmental impact statement.

“It’s not worth what it’s written on,” John says. “They didn’t do any research into the impact of dogs in the local area, historically or current.”

“People are afraid to speak out because of backlash.” Northern Beaches councillor Miranda Korzy

He says the dogs have already chased away the wildlife on the permitted off-leash area on the headland above Mona Vale Beach South, and the same is happening in Palm Beach.

“Nothing’s going to breed or feed or come to the ground or do anything when there are dogs, even if they’re on a leash,” John explains. Since the trial was announced, the dogs have been there constantly. And the shore birds have abandoned the beach.”

The section of North Palm Beach pegged for the trial is towards the national park. John is concerned about non-compliance as he says dogs won’t stay in the permitted section. He says an off-leash trial needs a beach with a natural boundary, as Mona Vale South has.

“I find it bizarre that the one they chose to unleash dogs on is right on the border of the national park,” John says.

“It’s a big, wide open beach at the mouth of the Hawkesbury. There are a lot of currents that will bring sea creatures right into this beach,” he says.

“The dog lobbies claim they’re being victimised, but you can walk your dog from Newport to Palm Beach, through all the reserves and everything.

“They’ve got everything else. Now they want the beaches.”

Ms Korzy says ‘there’s a long way to go’ before the issue is resolved. “And I don’t think there’s any guarantee that we’ll have dogs on beaches.”

Dog advocate Mitch Geddes says off-leash areas could solve a broader issue. “If we want a well-behaved dog population that does not cause disturbance from boredom barking, we need to provide wider off-leash options. A tired dog is a happy dog.”

*Name has been changed by request.