Biosecurity for LIFE guest blog by Greg Morgan (RSPB Cymru) with a foreword by Laura Bambini (Project Executive, Biosecurity for LIFE)
Conservation detection dogs (CDDs) are used on islands the world over in invasive species eradications and to help with island biosecurity. Here in the UK, we have only recently started utilising this high precision ‘active’ detection tool in this work, and the Biosecurity for LIFE project plans to test and demonstrate how these dogs can be incorporated into routine island biosecurity operations around the UK. We envisage that in the future, detection dogs will be used to assist in checks of island-bound cargo and vessels, to support the on-going biosecurity ‘passive’ surveillance efforts, and to assist in responses to suspected or confirmed incursion events. Greg is one of two recently accredited CDD handlers the project has trained. Here he provides an insight into what the role of the handler entails, and what a CDD can do to help with island biosecurity.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the RSPB reserve of Ramsey Island and also manage nearby Grassholm. Both islands play host to important seabird colonies. 36,000 pairs (just under 10% of the world population) of northern gannet breed on Grassholm, an island which has never had invasive species. Ramsey, in contrast, is an island in transition. Brown rats arrived via shipwrecks in the 1800’s causing Atlantic puffin and European storm petrel to go extinct on the island with Manx shearwaters reduced to just a few hundred pairs.
Following a successful rat eradication in 2000 Manx shearwater numbers have climbed to 5,000 pairs in just 20 years and storm petrels have recolonised (puffins are being more stubborn!) Ramsey and Grassholm may have contrasting back stories, but like seabird islands the world over, one thing unites them all – biosecurity.
Biosecurity has many meanings in life but in the world of seabird islands it essentially means keeping fragile ecosystems free of invasive species that shouldn’t be there. Seabird have evolved over millions of years to breed in isolation on remote islands, free from the pressures of mainland predators. Adding an invasive non-native species into the mix can destroy this delicate balance.
Whether a seabird island has never had invasive species, or has undergone an eradication project, keeping the site free of invasive species requires careful planning and diligence.
Both islands I manage have Biosecurity Plans. These aim to identify all possible ways an invasive species might reach the island (essentially a pathway risk assessment), establish methods to block these pathways (as far as possible) and in the event of an incursion (an invasive species arriving on an island), have a robust plan in place to tackle events quickly before the situation escalates and a full eradication is required.
Blocking the pathway i.e. stopping an invasive species arriving in the first place is number one priority, but alongside this we need surveillance techniques to monitor if any do arrive.
Until now we have largely used ‘passive’ surveillance techniques. On Ramsey and Grassholm, we use wax chew blocks (to show teeth marks), ink cards (to show footprints) and camera traps.
On Ramsey this has been our standard monitoring method in the intervening 20 years post rat eradication and, to date, no incursions have been detected. But ‘passive’ methods rely heavily on the invasive species finding the monitoring station and using it. Negative results can instil a false sense of security. There are cases of invasive species reaching islands and not being detected by a monitoring station or being picked up on camera. Early detection is crucial.
In the UK we are slowly catching up with an ‘active’ detection tool that has been widely used in biosecurity in other parts of the world – detection dogs.
If you are familiar with dogs you will know they have an incredible sense of smell. They have 300 million scent receptors, compared to just six million in humans. Dogs detect odours in parts per trillion, that is the equivalent of finding one dirty sock in a pile of two million clean ones!
Dogs have been widely used in detection services for many years – e.g. explosives detection in the military and security settings, drugs or contraband at airports and dogs trained to detect certain medical conditions. It is no surprise this ability can be transferred to the world of conservation detection. Some common uses in ecological projects includes detecting bat and bird carcasses at wind farms or in red squirrel conservation projects where they locate carcasses which can be tested for squirrel pox virus.
In the island restoration and biosecurity world dogs are trained to find species such as rats, mice and stoats. Crucially they are trained to give a firm and clear indication if their target species is found, giving the handler a high degree of confidence in the result. When working with wildlife, to reduce disturbance to wild animals we want the dogs to give a ‘passive’ indication – usually a ‘freeze’ position – rather than the ‘active’ indication that dogs used in search and rescue operations give to alert the handler to their find (e.g. barking).
To train a dog for this work, the Biosecurity for LIFE project has teamed up with a conservation dog training company called Kryus Ltd who have trained a number of dogs and handlers that now work in conservation projects and in ecological surveying. They are currently training a rat detection dog for the project which will help protect the UK’s seabird Special Protection Area’s (SPA’s). If all goes to plan we will be able to reveal him to you early next year!
The proposed dog is a two year old cocker spaniel who is being trained by Kryus to detect rats in various environments. The training also involves getting him used to busy places, large crowds, other dogs, livestock and anything else he may encounter in his day to day work as a conservation detection dog. He is nearing completion of his initial training which will see him handed over to the project to start life as an operational detection dog. But the dog needs a handler and that is where I come in…..
I recently completed an intensive two-week Conservation Detection Dog Handlers course run by Kryus which gave a solid foundation in how to handle fully trained detection dogs. This involved working with breeds from spaniels (springer and cocker) to Labradors to German Shepherds to pointers. All very different but all with the capability of using their incredible sense of smell and drive to pick out target species and clearly indicate to the handler when it had been located.
This adds a new dimension to our island biosecurity plans. Dogs provide us with a reliable way of detecting the presence of invasive species and enable us to cover large areas of ground. Passive surveillance methods, such as those described above, which rely on invasive species finding and utilising them give us the ability to monitor for rodents around the clock and are a low cost method of surveillance. Dogs, although requiring a lot of time and effort in the training stage, bring another level of detection ability given they seek out the target (instead of the target needing to find the surveillance tool) and, when used judiciously, can increase confidence in our results
Dogs have multiple uses in a biosecurity context. They can check for stowaways in confined spaces on boats and barges that are delivering cargo to islands and, in the case of passenger ferries, check people’s bags as they board. On the islands themselves they can monitor for signs of invasive species; they are trained to indicate on live animals and carcasses, urine, faeces and even strands of fur. On islands where there has been a recent eradication they can help with confirming, or otherwise, the presence of the target species and determining the success of a project.
Crucially dogs can help us detect the presence of target species much sooner than we would relying on passive surveillance techniques alone. With island biosecurity, time matters – the sooner you detect an incursion the better chance you have of nullifying the impact. Leave it too long and your incursion response plan will not be effective and a full, and costly, (re)eradication project will be required.
The course taught us how to plan our search areas and work methodically through landscapes that might be anything from neatly structured linear walls or vehicles to wild featureless moorlands. It taught us to control the dogs and work in tandem with them, watching their movements and moving them on to new areas within the search plan when satisfied they had covered an area sufficiently. We were taught how to use our body movement, hand signals and voice to guide the dog and, crucially, how to recognise when a dog was indicating on the target scent and how to react to this and reward the dog correctly.
The course also focussed heavily on animal welfare; looking after the dog’s needs is paramount. We completed a small animal 1st Aid course as part of the course and undertook training in how to deal with landowners and statutory authorities to ensure all permits and permissions are in place prior to working on private or environmentally sensitive land.
This excellent, intensive, two-week course gave us a solid foundation in how to handle such dogs and we came away full of ideas on how to incorporate the use of dogs in island biosecurity across the UK. I can see dogs becoming a valuable additional tool in our never ending biosecurity battle and, most importantly, making our biosecurity plans more robust, helping to keep our precious seabird islands free of invasive mammals.
We are looking forward to welcoming the new dog into the island biosecurity fold and continuing his, and my(!) training. We look forward to learning from and sharing experiences with the community of conservation detection dog handlers across the UK (and around the world!), including our colleagues at the Orkney Native Wildlife Project who are using dogs to assist with stoat biosecurity.
Watch this space!.....