Stig is very special, he is the world’s first water vole detection dog. From the inkling of an idea has emerged the concept behind Ali Charnick and her company, Ecology Dogs.
Following research with ecologists, scientists and dog handlers from many back grounds Ecology Dogs now has the first recognised water vole detection dog working throughout the UK assisting conservation organisations such as The Wildlife Trust and Environment Agency. Stig’s work has attracted much media attention and the team has featured on BBC’s Countryfile.
The water vole is Britain’s fastest declining mammal and has disappeared from many parts of the country where it was once common. A fully protected species the water vole needs to consume 80% of their own body weight in vegetation a day, this means that the habitat they live in is very dense with lush vegetation.
An expert with 10 years’ working experience within the conservation industry, teaching environmental science to children and undertaking habitat and species surveys. Ali Charnick developed a specific interest in water vole conservation. To survey and monitor the populations ecologists walk riverbanks looking for field clues such as latrines (faeces) and feeding signs. This means many hours battling through stinging nettles and brambles looking for the small tell-tale signs. Ali who also has a lifelong love for training and working dogs thought that there must be a more effective way of surveying the tough terrain and in a stroke of inspiration came up with the idea to combine her interests and use a specially trained dog to help with surveys.
Stig, an English springer spaniel with a varied training back ground from police work to working gun dog has taken to ecology work like a duck to water. Ali already familiar with training dogs for field sport has had to learn the art of scent work with guidance and help from police dog handlers and Mark Doggett of Enviro-Dogs. As with all scent work, scent discrimination is an essential part of training and Ali who used water vole faeces as the target odour said “Several species in the same habitat have a similar diet so ensuring Stig does not false indicate is vital to the accuracy of a survey”
Perfecting Stig’s indication took some time and was a bit of trial and error partly because of the vegetation height making it impossible to see him on indication. Initially he was giving a sit indication but in practice this was physically hard when surrounded by plant hazards. So back to the drawing board and Stig now works on a line with a freeze indication clearly felt through line tension when he cannot be seen. Ali admits it has been a steep learning curve and one she has fully enjoyed. “Stig’s attitude to work really helps, he is confident and enjoys his work, training and working with him is such a pleasure”
Lola, a sprocker spaniel has recently joined the team. With the company growing and in demand across the UK Ali needed a second dog trained in water vole detection. Lola a confident dog is really enjoying her learning journey, loves life and takes everything in her stride.
Both dogs are clicker trained and all Ali’s training is reward based, tennis balls are the favourite reward for both Stig and Lola.
Alastair Driver, national conservation manager at the Environment Agency and chair of the UK’s water vole steering group, said:
“It is essential that we have up-to-date information on water vole distribution because they breed prolifically, but also their populations can plummet quickly in response to floods, droughts, mink predation and habitat loss. So having the likes of Stig, who can survey inaccessible sections of riverbank, is a really important breakthrough for water vole conservation.”
Ecology Dogs offer an innovative and exciting new tool in protecting and conserving a native British species. Ali and her team are exploring other areas where this unique approach can further aid ecologists taking on new surveys and approaches from new partners seeking to harness these canine skills.