Sniffer dog to to help protect endangered birds in Firth of Forth from predator rats

RSPB look to man's best friend in a national first

Tuesday, 31st December 2019, 6:00 am
Project manager Tom Churchyard

A SNIFFER dog will be deployed on islands in the Forth to protect endangered birds from predator rats in a UK-first.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will recruit the animal to patrol so-called Special Protection Areas as part of a £1m project.

Those in the Forth are home to internationally important numbers of waterfowl including bar-tailed godwit, plover, knot and eider.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“It’s a preventative project - which is a lot more cost-effective,” said project manager Tom Churchyard.

“Rather than trying to solve the problem we’re trying to stop it occurring in the first place.”

A dog, most likely a spaniel or small terrier cross breed, and handler will patrol the UK’s 41 protected seabird islands - 29 of which are in Scotland.

It comes as part of a wider £1m four-year European Union-funded scheme to protect species at high risk of global extinction.

“One of the really big threats to seabirds is invasive predators like rodents,” added Mr Churchyard. “Rats can cause utter havoc and have been implicated in extinctions globally.”

Rats and house mice are known to stowaway in cargo before running amok on islands by gorging on eggs and chicks.

Currently, conservationists rely on chew blocks - candle wax dipped in chocolate - to entice rats into giving away their location.

Other methods currently used include camera traps and tracking tunnels - in which rodents leave footprints.

“These techniques are quite passive and rely on the rodent to interact - to chew on the wax,” said Mr Churchyard

“This is where the dog comes in because it can actively detect the presence of rats. A dog can cover a vast area quickly and efficiently.”

A rapid response network of specially trained rodent hunting volunteers - able to reach each island within 48 hours - will be on standby.

If rats are found on an island, the volunteers will be deployed armed with traps to hunt the predators.

“It’s important to highlight that the training will be for scent detection only and the dog will in no way be used in rodent control,” said Mr Churchyard.

The detection dog will be the first in the UK to be trained for such a purpose, based on similar successful schemes in Australia and New Zealand.

“We know from the experience of those working elsewhere in the world the use of well trained dogs can be an excellent tool,” said Mr Churchyard.

A dog will be trained up and partnered with an RSPB handler next year before the pair are deployed in 2021.

“As you can imagine the dog needs to be well trained for such a job,” said Mr Churchyard.

“There are currently no biosecurity dogs in the UK trained to detect the presence of rodents.

“We aim to work the dog in the UK to both demonstrate the advantages of having biosecurity dogs in the UK and to help with our work across the UK’s islands.”