Conservationists are on the road to solving a problem which has been puzzling wildlife experts across Wales, thanks to a dog with an acute sense of smell.
A specialist dog detection company in North Wales has trained springer spaniel Twister to track down the bodies of dead bats within miles of open field and woodland in a bid to keep a record of the mysteriously dwindling bat population.
Twister, who is the only bat-detecting dog in the UK, will be key to future research about the creatures following anecdotal evidence of bat deaths associated with wind farms and single wind turbines.
While the Countryside Council for Wales collaborated on an initial report on the risk factors with Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, it is hoped Twister will provide the most reliable answers.
Louise Wilson, director of Wagtail UK in Holywell, Flintshire, was inspired to train six-year-old Twister to help find the protected species after discovering dogs were being used in Portugal to advance knowledge on the impact of wind turbines.
“Bats are protected species and we need to know the scale of the problem so steps can be taken to prevent bat deaths and that means finding out how many bats are dying,” she said.
“Doing the training made us realise just how difficult it is to see these bats. They are so tiny obviously when they are dead, they just look like leaves on the floor.
“Bat carcasses do smell a lot, but in an open field it’s quite difficult to find them. Dogs have got 250m sense receptors while humans have about 5m.
“A dog can actually detect whether a scent is coming to his left nostril or his right. The dog’s brain and the dog’s nose is amazing – I don’t think there is any machine that can rival their senses.”
Although scientists don’t know precisely the cause or scale of the impact caused by certain wind turbines, international research suggests bats may be killed by barotrauma – which is lung damage and internal haemorrhaging caused by rapid air pressure reduction near moving turbine blades.
For Ms Wilson, 28, former rescue pup Twister is a brilliant colleague for the project, having started training just four months ago.
She said: “We got him on four common species of bat so I would say he was very quick to learn. That’s why I am so excited – how many people have so much energy, enthusiasm and motivation as a worker?
“I think from a dog trainer’s point of view, the speed at which Twister started to indicate with the bats, he was very, very fast.
“When he found a bat, he would then get a click from his clicker, which he understands as: ‘yes well done.’ The speed at which he started to realise that with the harness on and went for his reward was amazing really. From finding one bat, he would have to move on and leave it where it is and not return to that single bat again.
“He understands that once he’s found it and it’s got a flag next to it, he’s not going near it again. We didn’t want Twister to have any contact with the bat at all.”
Louise’s canine co-worker doesn’t just dive into the dark spots of woodland which might seem to be likely areas – he just goes by his sense of smell.
She said: “A dog doesn’t have any bias, once we have covered an area, I might still have doubt but Twister looks at me as if to say: ‘We have looked at this, it’s time to go on to the next one.’
Twister’s colleagues at Wagtail UK work on a number of other important missions, including detection of passive and proactive drugs, explosives, tobacco and counterfeit tobacco, search and rescue and arson.
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