Sunday 25 September 2016

Dog sniffing out changes to harvest mouse population

Published 21/09/2015 | 17:15

Conservationists are assessing the fortunes of harvest mice by training up a sniffer dog to track them (Ben Andrew/Firebird PR/PA)
Conservationists are assessing the fortunes of harvest mice by training up a sniffer dog to track them (Ben Andrew/Firebird PR/PA)
Harvest mice are thought to have declined in numbers in the past 40 years as a result of changes to farming and the way habitats are managed

Conservationists are taking a new approach to assessing the fortunes of the elusive harvest mouse by training up a sniffer dog to track them.

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Harvest mice, which live in cereal fields, reed beds and hedgerows, are thought to have declined in numbers in the past 40 years as a result of changes to farming and the way habitats are managed.

The species is one of the smallest and most elusive mammals in Britain. Finding signs of them can be difficult and time-consuming and there have been no reliable studies to assess how populations have fallen.

An innovative project headed by PhD researcher Emily Howard-Williams at Moulton College, Northamptonshire, will train up Tui, a flat-coated retriever, to detect the scent of harvest mice to make it easier and more efficient to track them in the countryside.

The project follows a similar scheme used in New Zealand to seek out kiwi birds, which has seen two English setters sniff out 30 birds in four days.

The People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) has awarded a grant towards the project.

Nida Al-Fulaij, grants manager from PTES, said: "We all know that dogs have an amazing sense of smell. The UK enlists the help of sniffer dogs at airports, music festivals and in the Army, so why not also use them for conservation purposes to find harvest mice?

"The trained eye may miss a harvest mouse nest, but a trained nose is much more likely to pick up on a familiar scent and alert the handler to the presence of recent harvest mice activity in that area."

Ms Howard-Williams said: "The harvest mouse appears to have undergone significant declines in parts of the countryside, partly in response to the intensification of modern agriculture, but also due to habitat loss. Yet it still remains difficult to ascertain just how many there really are.

"The funding from PTES will help to train our resident harvest mouse detector dog, enabling us to determine whether using sniffer dogs is the best approach in tracking these creatures."

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