PhD student Emily Howard-Williams has been conducting research into the conservation of one of the most elusive and smallest mammels in Great Britain, the harvest mouse. Finding their tell-tale signs can be a difficult and time-consuming exercise even for the experts - consequently it’s proved frustratingly difficult to determine an accurate picture of their current numbers in the UK. So the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) has awarded an ecological grant towards the innovative project.
The research involves training Tui, a flat-coated retriever to learn to detect the scent of harvest mice, making tracking their presence in the countryside easier and more efficient. Typically found in cereal fields, reed beds and hedgerows, PTES believes that harvest mice have declined in the past 40 years as a result of changes to farming practices and habitat management. To date there have been no reliable studies to quantify this change, and it is unclear as to exactly how many are currently left in the UK. With the help of Tui, who was bred from working gun dogs, Emily’s team hopes to shed some light on one of the most iconic species of the British countryside.
As Emily explains, “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!”
Harvest mice create nests, woven amongst tall grasses or reeds, giving skilled trackers key indicators of their presence. However, these can be hard to find, even for the most expert eye, and nests as well as other indicators can be difficult to locate. With the aid of a trained dog, Emily’s team will be able to survey a site more rapidly, with less margin for error. A similar method is already being successfully used in New Zealand to seek out kiwi birds. Two English setters managed to sniff out 30 birds in just four days.
Nida Al-Fulaij, Grants Manager from PTES concludes, “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. We are very excited to be funding this project and look forward to seeing what results reveal about harvest mice populations in the UK”.
This is just one of the conservation projects being undertaken by Moulton College students. You can find out about our Countryside Management courses at Moulton College.