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2 years ago

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Of dogs and women* Tony

Of dogs and women* Tony Martin – Project Director Decades of experience, across hundreds of islands where invasive species have been eradicated, has shown that our search for any surviving rodents should use a range of detection methods. In the past we in SGHT have used passive devices like chew sticks and tracking tunnels, and these will again be employed in large numbers during the Phase 4 survey. But the ultimate rodent detection device is a moist nose on the front end of a highly trained dog, and for this definitive survey we are delighted to have secured the services of three such dogs and their expert handlers. Miriam Ritchie, Jane Tansell and their terriers Will, Wai and Ahu hail from New Zealand, where pest eradications have long been a vital tool in preserving native wildlife and where the Government established a Conservation Dog certification programme to raise and maintain standards. Miriam, Jane and their dogs have all passed their respective examinations, and the team is hugely experienced in this field of work, having spent months searching sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island and many other locations for rodents after eradication attempts have been made. snarling seal. This is an astonishing skill, and one that takes countless months and years of daily training to develop and refine. It must be honed to the point where the trainer will be confident that when their canine stops near a huge, smelly seal and indicates a detection, the focus of interest is not the seal. The dog is actually responding to a tiny hole in the ground beside the seal or perhaps a small pile of rat poo under the seal's flipper. Dogs with this level of ability offer several advantages over inert devices when it comes to searching for rodents. Firstly, they will find rats that may be reluctant to chew a stick, even a stick cunningly soaked in peanut oil or some other tempting attractant. Secondly, devices may be washed away or knocked out of the ground by passing wildlife and subsequently lost before anyone has a chance to examine them for tell-tale chew marks. And thirdly, as any pet owner will know, dogs cover vast amounts of territory, rushing hither and thither while their trainer maintains a steady pace across the terrain. In an hour, a terrier will have the detection power of hundreds of static devices and, should a rodent be still alive, that terrier will tell its handler not where it was once, but where it is now. And so, while it is never possible to be absolutely certain that an island is free of an introduced pest, Miriam, Jane, Will, Wai and Ahu will offer us the nearest thing to certainty if and when they leave South Georgia without having located any evidence of rodents. During the expedition, the dogs will have run thousands of kilometres and searched vast tracts of the island for the faintest whiff of a rat or a mouse, their interest maintained by the occasional frozen laboratory rodent hidden in the terrain by their trainers. We hope and trust that this skilled team of women and dogs from New Zealand will enjoy their time on South Georgia as much as their fellow rat detectors will undoubtedly have enjoyed working alongside them. Their departure, hopefully having failed to locate what they came to find, will mark a watershed in the recent history of the island - the point at which we really will believe that the eradication has succeeded, that South Georgia is once again free of furry invaders, and that this hugely ambitious project can be considered to be at an end. Will relaxing at home Miriam and Will Contrary to my naive expectations, the skill of a good detection ("sniffer") dog is not so much being able to smell the target aroma, but to ignore the many other competing aromas that its sensitive nose will detect. The enormity of this challenge will be very apparent to anyone who has visited South Georgia and stood downwind of an elephant seal or a fur seal. Even to our noses, which are not remotely as sensitive as those of dogs, these seals give off a very powerful smell. And there are literally millions of these malodorous creatures around the coast of the island; in fact it's difficult to get far away from them. Imagine, then, the challenge of ignoring this ever-present, overpowering pungency while searching single-mindedly for a faint whiff of a rat - moreover, not a rat that stands there in full view, but a rat that once passed by or perhaps lives down a small hole right beside the * I have at home a delightful book about working dogs in the Antarctic, entitled Of Dogs and Men. Things are a little different now! 2

Photo by Tony Martin Photo by Tony Martin A force of nature Alison Neil, CEO SGHT It is now well over a year since the Phase 3 area was baited and the last rodent-infested hectare of South Georgia treated. Together we have taken the steps to finally remove the scourge of rats and mice on the island that has lasted two centuries. Everyone who has supported and contributed to the project so far is eager for news about the indigenous wildlife that we set out to save. As you know, until we complete the survey element of Phase 4 which Project Director Tony Martin describes above, we cannot know whether the birds are indeed safe or if the rodent threat still lurks on the island. But what we can say is that the wildlife is already staging a comeback. Pipits and pintails, the first birds that we expected to thrive in the absence of rats, are rapidly reclaiming their ancestral breeding grounds, to the delight of visitors. More super news is that the numbers of the few bird species that suffered losses as a result of the baiting work, such as the snowy sheathbill, have recovered well. A somewhat ruffled South Georgia Pipit struggling against South Georgia’s winds – photo by Matthew Moran In the coming season visitors to South Georgia can use our Rat Watch leaflet (downloadable from www.fosgi.org and www.sght.org) to check out any potential rodent sign and report positive sightings. It also contains an identification aid for those birds we hope will thrive on a rat-free South Georgia. We’d love to hear from you if you see any of these birds, and please share any photographs too! In the Rat Watch leaflet you can also find out how to support this final phase of the eradication work. It is truly exciting to see how quickly these threatened birds are reclaiming their territory in the absence of rodents. Your support for the survey in Phase 4 is vital to ensure that this recovery is unchecked by the resurgence of surviving rats. A gang of sheathbills decides which poor seal to harass today. This bull elephant seal is no doubt thinking ‘why me?’ – photo by Sarah Lurcock FOSGI Trustee and seabird expert Peter Harrison contacted us in April with this report of bird sightings: “on a recent Apex Expeditions visit to South Georgia a few weeks ago we saw so many pipits and ducks wherever we went, it actually brought tears to my eyes! I last saw a pipit at Salisbury Plain well over 20 years ago and yet on my recent visit I saw a staggering 18 birds. At Fortuna, on a single pond, I counted 176 pintails; my highest ever tally on the island had been 22 birds. This was a wonderful testimony to the importance of the restoration programme.” Sarah Lurcock reports that “the return of the pipit to the recentlybaited southern end of the island was so quick it took us all by surprise. Cruise ship staff have repeatedly reported seeing more ducks and pipits than they had ever seen before in many of the regularly visited areas.” Pintail ducks fill the sky. There are more today in King Edward Cove than ever before in living memory – thanks to the ducklings now being free of rat predation. Photo by Jamie Coleman 3

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