Specially trained dogs join the fight against pest plant Chilean needle grass

Environment Canterbury's Biosecurity team is part of a team trialling an innovative approach to detect the pest plant Chilean needle grass (CNG).

Plant scientist Dr Fiona Thomson wanted to establish whether dogs could be a useful tool in CNG detection. Fiona approached Environment Canterbury with her proposal, which was then taken to the CNG Management Group - a joint working party of MPI, Hawkes Bay Regional Council, Marlborough District Council and Environment Canterbury.  The group used some of its shared research budget to fund a proof of concept study for Fiona's work.

Dogs have been successfully used in the search for another pest plant recently – velvetleaf.  Velvetleaf has a very strong smell, while CNG doesn't, so it was expected that training dogs to detect CNG would be a bigger challenge.

Fiona enlisted the help of Geoff Bowers, dog trainer and owner of Kuri Dog Centre, to help with the training.  Within a few weeks they were confident that the dogs could differentiate between CNG and other grasses, with the dogs detecting CNG in controlled field trials.  The dogs have been practicing on infested properties in Canterbury and Marlborough.

While it is still early days for the project, the results look promising so far and the team is hopeful that in the future, detection dogs will be a valuable tool for sniffing out isolated patches of CNG, or for confirming the absence of CNG in a particular area.  Once the dogs are trained in scent detection, they will be easily trained up on new species, meaning they could swap species depending on demand - for example, searching for myrtle rust in the North Island.

Why Chilean needle grass is a problem

CNG is an invasive pasture pest that reduces crop yields, causes animal welfare issues and places some restrictions on infested farms, such as not being able to make and distribute hay outside of their own property.  If you suspect you have found CNG, contact Environment Canterbury immediately on 0800 324 636.