Desert Natural Area: Dog-Leashing Policy

Effective May 1, 2021: New Dog-Leashing Policy at the Desert Natural Area

As of May 1, 2021, dogs must be leashed at all times in the Desert Natural Area, and people and their pets must stay on the trails to protect the sensitive resources at this important conservation area. 

Thank you for complying with this policy.

This decision was reached by the owners of the following conservation lands that make up the Desert Natural Area (see map), which straddles the Marlborough-Sudbury line. These land managers have been working together for over 25 years to protect the special resources in the Desert:

  • Desert Natural Land -- City of Marlborough
  • Hop Brook Natural Area -- Town of Sudbury
  • Memorial Forest -- Sudbury Valley Trustees’ (SVT)
  • General Federation of Womens’ Clubs Massachusetts Memorial Forest -- GFWCM
  • Marlborough-Sudbury State Forest -- Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation

What special resources are found in the Desert Natural Area?

The Desert Natural Area hosts a globally rare habitat – pitch pine-scrub oak barrens.  This unusual habitat supports a suite of rare and declining species of plants, insects, turtles, and birds.

Additionally, the area hosts two cold-water streams that support native brook trout, Cranberry Brook and Trout Brook. Such high-quality streams are rare in the heavily populated Metrowest region.

Why Must Dogs Be Leashed?

Over time, free-running dogs have damaged many of the special resources in the Desert Natural Area. SVT and our partner conservation land managers at the greater Desert Natural Area have discussed these issues and determined that the best solution is to require that dogs be leashed at all times on these conservation lands.

The Marlborough City Code requires dogs to be leashed in all areas, both public and private, unless specific permission is provided on private lands:  

  • No person owning or keeping a dog within the City shall permit such dog to be at large, loose or unattended within the City at any time...
  • All dogs must be under actual physical restraint by way of a leash when on any property within the City,...

The Sudbury Town Bylaw: 

  • All dogs in the Town of Sudbury shall be restrained, kept on a leash or under the direct and complete control of a responsible person at all times. 

What problems are caused by free-ranging dogs?

Eastern Whip-poor-willHarm to wildlife. Free-ranging dogs frequently run off the trails and into the woods, and they are threatening the viability of rare wildlife species at the Desert Natural Area, including:

  • Eastern whip-poor-will, a bird that nests directly on the ground and is listed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a "species of special concern."  The local population of this bird has plummeted over the last 20 years.
  • Several other species of birds that build nests in low shrubs and have been identified as being in decline: prairie warbler, eastern towhee, common nightjar, American woodcock, and brown thrasher.
  • Two rare species of turtles that can be disturbed by dogs during the period when they emerge from wetlands to build their nests in the ground.

Stream Bank Restoration at Memorial ForestHarm to water resources. Free-ranging dogs have also harmed the cold-water streams at the Desert Natural Area. Heavy dog traffic in and out of the water has caused significant erosion on the stream banks. Cold-water streams that support native brook trout are a rarity in the Metrowest region and are additionally protected by the Sudbury Wetlands Bylaw

Contamination. In addition, when dogs run off trail and poop in the woods, their owners generally do not pick up after them. Dog feces contain harmful bacteria that can run into streams and leach into groundwater. The leash requirement will ensure that owners observe when and where they need to pick up after their dog and prevent the feces from contaminating these lands.

Unwanted interactions. Free-ranging dogs--even friendly dogs--have been the source of unpleasant and occasionally harmful interactions with other visitors. Dogs often run up to, jump on, and bark at other visitors. The Desert Natural Area is popular with area residents, and is becoming even more heavily used, and these interactions are becoming more frequent.

I have been walking my dog here for years, and my dog does not do any damage. Why should I have to leash my dog?

The land managers have made this decision based on increased levels of use. If there were only a few dogs, the impact would be minimal, but the increasing population of visitors and dogs has increased impacts. Specifically:

  • Stream banks and wetlands continue to be degraded by free-running dogs.
  • Our nesting birds and turtles need all the help that they can get to be successful. Nesting birds require undisturbed habitat for the best reproductive success. Dogs running through habitat stresses the birds, which causes birds to abandon their nests and fledglings to be harmed or killed.  
  • Unleashed dogs continue to run up to other people, bark at them, or jump on them. These conservation lands are meant to provide a pleasant nature-based experience for all users.

Why not just require dogs to be on leash in certain areas, such as near streams?

It would be impossible to select just one area. The Desert Natural Area has a variety of sensitive habitat features that are located in many different portions of this property. We need to protect all of the sensitive plants, streams, and wetlands, as well as wildlife such as ground and low-nesting birds and nesting turtles.  

Additionally, many more people are visiting the Desert Natural Area now, and we want everyone to enjoy their visit. Most people do not want unfamiliar dogs running up to them, barking at them, or jumping on them. We have seen an uptick in complaints about unleashed dogs. 

Is there any evidence of heavy erosion?

Yes. In 2016, the Town of Sudbury’s Conservation Commission issued a violation and enforcement order against SVT because of significant levels of stream bank erosion in Memorial Forest. SVT implemented a costly restoration of several eroded stream bank areas.

After the restoration, SVT posted signage and required dog walkers to leash their dogs before and while crossing any bridges. Many dog walkers did follow these guidelines, but others did not. We continued to see significant stream bank erosion at two locations that were not fenced off. 

Dog waste is natural. Why can’t I leave it there?

Dog waste is not natural. It contains harmful bacteria that is not found in wildlife feces. Contaminants in dog waste can seep into ground water and run off into streams or surface waters.

Please download this brochure for more information.

Where can I take my dog to run free and go in the water?

We are not able to provide a list because rules at other locations may change. Please research the current rules and regulations for public parks and conservation lands in your community or region. Contact your local officials for more information.