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Sniffer dogs help discover storm petrel colony on the Isle of May in a UK first - NatureScot

K9 staff with sniffer dogs, from left to right From the team photo from left to right Lyn with Pyper, Lorriane with Nelson, Lucy with Esmay, and Simon with Molly and Storm. Credit NatureScot
K9 staff with sniffer dogs, from left to right From the team photo from left to right Lyn with Pyper, Lorriane with Nelson, Lucy with Esmay, and Simon with Molly and Storm. Credit NatureScot

For the first time in UK conservation, sniffer dogs have been used to locate a seabird colony, with the location of a storm petrels discovered on the Isle of May in September.

Storm petrels were confirmed to be breeding on NatureScot’s Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) for the first time this past summer. But with the sniffer dogs’ assistance, the location and extent of the colony has now been detected.

Storm petrels are small oceanic birds that breed in the UK during the summer months but spend their lives out at sea. The vast majority of the population – about 26,000 pairs breed in the UK – can be found on remote islands, especially in the north and west of Scotland. The species is notoriously difficult to monitor due to its nocturnal habits and preference for these remote, rocky islands.

Five professional sniffer dogs were trained over a two-month period to locate the scent of storm petrels underground. Dogs have a much greater sense of smell than humans, and can cover larger areas in a shorter space of time to locate potential nest burrows. The time of year was crucial as storm petrels were still present in underground burrows, but all other seabirds had left the island. This ensured no other seabirds or wildlife were disturbed by the presence of dogs.

Dogs were used for 20 minutes at a time to walk transects and search for nesting storm petrels underground, allowing rotation and rest periods for each dog and handler. Set areas were checked and each positive indication was marked for further investigation. Work will be conducted next spring with endoscopes and playback recordings of calls to establish occupancy of these burrows. A total of 63 confirmed positive responses – revealing burrows were found. Burrows indicate where pairs are nesting, as well as sites for some non-breeding birds and prospecting young birds.

Posted on: 27 October 2021

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