A bat’s best friend
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By Rachael Flavell
I have been handling and training detection dogs for 6 years in a variety of disciplines. Breaking down doors with HMRC on dawn raids for illicit tobacco and cash, searching stadia, vehicles and hotels for explosives or surveying wind farms for bat and bird carcasses. I’ve trained dogs that detect animals being smuggled through airports, as well as training the first ever scientifically tested Great Crested Newt (GCN) detection dog. It’s fair to say that my career in dog handling so far has been pretty exciting.
In March 2020 I was made redundant, but I wasn’t about to give up on something that I was truly passionate about. When you’ve had to get on your hands and knees to dig a bat carcass out of the mud, or smashed through a tiled wall to reveal a complex concealment of tobacco, you can then appreciate the true thrill of dog handling. So, I decided to go it alone, and set up my own company. Conservation is the one area that I feel proud to be part of. The fact that dogs are able to assist in such important projects and surveys, and the opportunity to learn about these incredible animals you are searching for, motivates me to keep proving just how useful and incredible dogs can be.
A typical search day on a wind farm usually starts pretty early. Ensuring the dogs are fully exercised, (thermos of coffee in hand), and driving to the windfarm before sunrise. If there are any bats, or birds, that have been struck by turbines, then there is potential for their carcasses to be scavenged by animals or insects. By getting to site early in a bid to beat some scavengers, it increases the chance to find carcasses. Not all handlers do this, but like I said. I’m passionate. And who needs sleep?! Right?
I tend to rotate the dogs on each turbine, so while one dog rests, the other one works. This ensures I’m not overworking them. They will always get their reward (tennis ball) during the search day if there were no carcasses to be found. I place out ‘sweeteners’ (a bat or bird carcass) that I take with me to site. It’s very important that the dogs enjoy what they do and stay switched on. The days are long and strenuous on both the handler and the dogs.
When the dog locates a bat or bird carcass then they will indicate this to me, usually by sitting or lying down, they will then wait for me to flag the find and reward them. Next, we have a good play stage before I collect the carcass, this is the only time they will get their tennis ball so it’s important that they enjoy their time with it. I then record all the information required by the clients for the struck bat/bird. This often includes photographs, GPS location, a fur sample (bats) and bagging the find and labelling it. The fur samples are for DNA testing to determine the species if not obvious from the photographs. If needed I’ll also record the wind speed and direction, and the bearing of the carcass from the turbine. This then builds up a picture for the client of what is being killed and where.
Once all the turbines have been surveyed, the dogs will have another walk out of harness to unwind. An often overlooked fragment to dog handing. Work is not exercise. We all need down time.
Another very important aspect of handling detection dogs is their training. I’m very conscious of my training efforts, as I like to cover all possibilities and eventualities. I try to recreate training scenarios and conditions so they mimic real life searches, as well as the condition of the actual scent sample being as close to what the dogs find. For example, fresh bat carcasses will not smell exactly the same as a carcass that has been left to sit and decay for a few days. Some are dried out with barely anything left of them, whilst others are wet and maggot infested. Covering all stages of decomposition in training maximises overall success whilst searching operationally. The dogs also participate in frequent external client testing to ensure they are efficient.
So why use dogs for conservation?
Dogs are non-invasive, more efficient and cover areas far more quickly than human search teams, thus saving time and money. They do not assume or discriminate like a human could, making them a very effective ‘tool’ in assisting with surveys.
Some of the finds my dogs have had over the years would have been near impossible for a human to see. I was also fortunate enough to have had a dog indicate on a live bat, struck by the turbine but that was lucky enough to survive. I carry a bat care box with me everywhere I go, and in that instance I passed the bat on to a local carer.
Going forward into next year, the plans so far include, GCN training, new animal species to research and hopefully train dogs to detect, as well as a new research project which will be a first for dogs in the UK. We’ve already witnessed the range of things that dogs can be used to detect. Carcasses, scats, live animals, roosts, and invasive plant species to name a few.
Finally, if any companies or ecologists out there think they may have a project that a dog could be useful for, then please don’t hesitate to contact me. email@example.com
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