• Vessel bound for South Georgia must be rodent free
• Conservation K9 Consultancy are only conservation dogs officially certified
The RRS Sir David Attenborough is one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world. 129 metres long, weighing 15,000 tonnes, able to break through 1-metre-thick ice at a speed of 3 knots, with a crew of 30 and accommodation - and state of the art facilities - for up to 60 scientists; this is a vital polar research vessel. Yet one tiny stowaway on the British Antarctic Survey ship could spell disaster for the ship’s mission when it heads for South Georgia; it is essential no rodents are on board.
The dodo is a salutary warning. When sailors went to the species’ island home of Mauritius, they introduced invasive species, such as rats. Alongside hunting and habitat destruction, this doomed the now extinct bird. It is paramount that a ship setting out to study and conserve wildlife does not contribute to their downfall.
How do you ensure such a vast vessel is rodent free? Dogs. Not just any dogs though. Well trained detection dogs with expert handlers are searching the Sir David Attenborough, as well as its cargo and stores, to eradicate any trace of rodents.
Louise Wilson, founder of Conservation K9 Consultancy, said, “Our dogs are the only dogs certified by Working Dogs for Conservation in the UK. The searches have to be done properly, because all it would take is one pregnant mouse or rat on board, to cause a massive problem.
“In 2018, South Georgia was declared vermin free, after years of vermin eradication costing millions of pounds. Rats were accidentally taken to the island on whaling ships, and devastated the population of ground nesting birds and their habitat. It’s vital not to have even one rodent on board any vessel going there.”
From a human point of view, this task would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The dogs don’t look though – they sniff. It takes around twelve weeks to train a detection dog, although to prepare a dog for a conservation role can take up to a year.
Louise said, “The dogs are trained to detect vermin, but searching a vessel is a very demanding environment. The dogs have to become accustomed to the water’s edge, to being craned into the hull, and the floors are often grids which their paws pop through so the dogs have to become acclimatised to wearing booties to protect their feet. So some really loaded environmental training has to go into making sure the dog is happy.”
In addition to these factors, the dogs must be ready to work when the job requires, “You haven’t always got a routine - we may have to go and do searches in the middle of the night - so our dogs have to be quite happy with spontaneity.”
The welfare of the dogs is paramount for Louise, and the company has strict directives in place, because as well as physical fatigue, the dogs can suffer nasal fatigue.
Therefore, the dogs search for twenty minutes, then rest for at least twenty minutes. Louise works with a team of dogs who work and rest on rotation.
Olfaction is self-rewarding, as it causes lots of arousing chemical release in the brain. The dogs are trained to indicate fresh rat odour, requiring Louise to keep pet rats for a fresh supply of target odour.
“We don't want the dogs to be detecting any vintage odour - some items have been in storage for the last couple of years, there might have been rats on them during that time. Our dogs are specially trained so they're not detecting any old residue of rats or mice - it actually has to be fresh.”
Sniffing out vermin is a complex task for a dog, because unlike other target odours – drugs, explosives, cash – live rats move around creating huge scent pictures for the dogs to decode. Louise and the Conservation K9 Consultancy team are expertly trained to read their dogs’ reactions as they search.
There is no predatory response involved, “At no point are we training them to hunt down, or kill rats. We’re talking about dogs that are trained specifically to detect the live presence of rats within the last two weeks.”
With fifty percent of their brains devoted to olfaction, the security of such a significant ship is in safe paws.