Sniffing out pine marten poop in Shropshire

Hannah Farley, Project Officer for Growing Confidence at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, has been working with a variety of different groups of young people to offer them the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the natural world and the environmental sector.

I have been working closely with one secondary school to provide an alternative curriculum for eight young people who struggle to remain engaged in a traditional classroom. As a result of practical outdoor work one afternoon a week, these young people are building up a bank of transferable skills, wildlife knowledge, conservation experience and practical skills. And it doesn’t stop there – the work we do has a significant positive impact on their confidence and self-esteem.

I am exposing the group to as many different conservation experts and careers as possible to demonstrate the myriad of opportunities available to them in the environmental sector. Although I hadn’t envisaged a black Labrador being one of these experts.

Recently, and after a dedicated five year search, Shropshire Wildlife Trust employee Stuart Edmunds discovered the first confirmed population of Pine Martens in England for 100 years. Alive and well in the deep south of Shropshire, mammal mad Stuart used the services of Louise from Conservation K9 Consultancy and her Black Labrador Luna to get DNA from the population. Luna is trained to indicate to the scent of Pine Marten scat (or poop to you and me)! I couldn’t wait to introduce this unusual and increasingly important type of conservation career to the group.

The afternoon with Stuart explaining who he was and his role at Shropshire Wildlife Trust. He showed the group camera trap footage of a fawn and some badgers found in the local area and the questions began to flow. Then the session was handed over to Louise who started off with encouraging the group to smell Pine Marten poo – as you can imagine this didn’t go down too well!

Louise explained that Pine Martens are very elusive animals and conservation organisations can struggle to know if they are present in an area or not. Louise was getting more and more enquiries about training one of her dogs up to sniff out their scat and that’s when she started training up Luna. Now Luna is incredibly reliable and the pair gave us a fantastic demo. Louise hid some pine marten scat and within a minute Luna was lying down to indicate where the scat was and was rewarded with a ball.

Luna is trained to only indicate when she smells pine marten scat but on a walk around the nature reserve the group saw her behaviour change when she picked up any animal scent. We knew Pine Martens weren’t in this area of the county (well we think they aren’t) but Luna found a big pile of badger hair and a found a dormouse who wisely escaped up a hazel tree.

On the walk Louise explained how she trained Luna and her other dogs to different scents using praise and repeated behaviour as well as a scent wall. She initially started training bomb and drug sniffing dogs but then realised how valuable this type of work could be in the conservation sector. Some of her client’s previous requests included Ivory detection in Africa, the mystery big cats in the UK, bat carcass detection around wind farms and diamond detection.

After the walk Louise introduced us to the rest of the team. One of her dogs was a retired expert in bomb detection and has done some great work abroad. The group also met Henry the spaniel who is Louise’s rescue trainee sniffer – he got very excited and loved the attention from the group. He did a great job with his demo which just shows that he is well on the way to become an expert!

From the first minute of the session the group were enthralled and some of the young people who had previously struggled to engage were really thriving. They asked Louise lots of questions, told stories about their dogs and looked intently for signs of wildlife. A barking good day was had by all and I will definitely be asking Conservation K9 Consultancy to come and meet more of my groups in the future.

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