Sniffer dogs have been used for the first time in UK conservation to locate a seabird colony.
Storm petrels, small oceanic birds, were confirmed to be breeding on NatureScot’s Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) in the Firth of Forth.
With the assistance of the dogs, the location and extent of the colony has now been detected.
The birds breed in the UK during the summer months but spend their lives out at sea.
Five professional sniffer dogs were trained over a two-month period to locate the scent of storm petrels underground.
David Steel, reserve manager at the Isle of May, said they were “delighted” to confirm the colony.
“We were really excited to work with the dogs and the dog handlers to find out more about storm petrels on the island,” he said.
“These special seabirds come ashore under the cover of darkness and nest underground in crevices, burrows, cairns or stone-walls, raising a single chick.
“During that time, their activities – singing away in total darkness, as well as their unique musky smell, make these birds so fascinating and mysterious. We’re delighted to confirm the storm petrel colony after such a great team effort over the last three years by so many people.”
Dr Mark Bolton, the leading authority on storm petrels in the UK and a principal conservation scientist for the RSPB, described the search as “ground-breaking”.
He said: “It’s very exciting to discover a new breeding colony of storm petrels in the UK, which considerably extends their known breeding range on the east coast of Britain, and increases their resilience to the many challenges our seabirds face.
“The fact that specially-trained scent dogs were used to locate many of the nesting sites is groundbreaking in the UK, and I hope it heralds a new era of greater use of scent dogs for seabird monitoring here.”
Simon Chapman, senior trainer at K9 Manhunt & ScentWork Scotland, added: “Having trained lots of different dogs over the years on a vast array different odours, this was a first for us to work in conservation and to locate a new colony of nesting seabirds.
“Dogs are a cost effective and fast method to cover the ground when conducting these types of surveys.”