Scent detection dog joins battle against weed in our region

A remarkable one-eyed scent detection dog is training to take on his latest challenge; sniffing out African love grass.

John Taylor trains and handles the four-year-old Border Collie, Wink, and the two have already been an invaluable part of Canterbury’s programme to eradicate pest grass Spartina.

Wink and his trainer searching for Spartina in the Avon-Heathcote estuary

Wink’s training will take up to three months. It started in a controlled warehouse space and will be followed by time out in the field where he can cover ground much faster than his human companions.

He’s learning to pick out the damaging pest African love grass amongst a variety of other scents, and the clever dog shows he’s detected the plant by barking and biting at it.

Wink came to John when he was five months old, and shortly afterwards the puppy’s right eye was removed because of an ulcer behind it. He quickly recovered and completed an intense six-month programme to become a conservation dog when he was only 11 months old.

John and Wink have since undertaken scent detection work for central government and regional councils across the country.

Laurence Smith, principal biosecurity advisor at Environment Canterbury, says while scent detection dogs like Wink see this work as a fun game, they are an increasingly important part of pest surveillance programmes.

Dogs have previously been used to detect Chilean needle grass. Wink is already an expert at sniffing out Spartina grass, and we are thrilled that John has agreed to train him to detect African love grass. Once the training has been completed, John and Wink will join Environment Canterbury biosecurity officers to search for the pest across our region.”

“They will focus on land where there are known infestations to help identify if it’s spread, and also at sites where the pest isn’t currently found but there’s a high-risk of it emerging under favorable conditions,” Smith says.

African love grass

About African love grass

African love grass is a pest that can significantly damage our environment, and tolerates fire, drought and frost conditions as well as poor soils. It rapidly invades bare and undisturbed sites and forms dense stands that prevent the establishment of native species.

The plant is long-lived, fast growing and produces masses of widely dispersed seeds, while having the ability to grow in habitats from sea-level up to 3500m.

Currently, it’s known to occur in the hill country areas of South Canterbury, and at an isolated roadside site in North Canterbury. It’s crucial for the control on the plant that we actively assume it could occur in areas outside these known locations.

Environment Canterbury’s biosecurity focus under the newly adopted Long-Term Plan is to invest in early intervention, with the aim of saving time and money by stopping emerging pests from becoming widespread. A significant part of this goal rests in increasing surveillance and investigation activities, including through the assistance of scent detection dogs.