Detection dogs tackling biodiversity threats in Barrington Tops

Alice and Echo. Photo: J Spencer NPWS.

AN unconventional yet effective team is helping to tackle Phytophthora dieback in Barrington Tops National Park.

In a ground-breaking initiative, conservation detection dogs Alice and Echo have been trained to sniff out Phytophthora cinnamomi, an unseen pathogen which is a major threat to Australia’s biodiversity, causing permanent damage to ecosystems with no feasible means to eradicate it once present.

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These dogs are part of research by the NSW Government and partners to provide a rapid, low-cost tool for surveying high-risk pathways and limiting new infections.

With an impeccable sense of smell, they can detect the presence of Phytophthora in concentrations as low as half a grain of rice in one kilo of soil.

During their recent visit to Barrington Tops, Alice and Echo showed off their extensive skills, conducting trials to detect Phytophthora on vehicles, which could offer a quick means of preventing Phytophthora spread through the park, and at Polblue Swamp, the site of known Phytophthora cinnamomi infections.

This field testing was an important learning opportunity for Alice and Echo, and their trainers, to
refine training techniques and strengthen the dog’s capability as reliable, in-situ detection tools.

The discovery in the late 1990s of Phytophthora at an altitude of 1,500 metres in Barrington Tops, an area normally out of range of such threats, set off alarm bells for park managers and scientists.

Barrington Tops is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area and is well-known for its incredible range of vegetation communities.

Unfortunately, many of the species in this diverse ecosystem are susceptible to Phytophthora.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) maintains a strict quarantine zone within Barrington Tops, where the majority of the infestation is concentrated. It is imperative that visitors do not enter this zone.

Feral animals are also significant contributors to the spread of Phytophthora and NPWS has proactively addressed part of this concern through a longstanding feral pig control program.

This project is a collaboration between the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Tate Animal Training Enterprises, the University of Sydney, Botanic Gardens of Sydney’s PlantClinic and the NSW Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

“Alice and Echo are not your average dogs,” Julia Rayment, NPWS Project Lead told NOTA.

“These highly trained members of our conservation team have the potential to provide a rapid, accurate and inexpensive tool to prevent the spread of Phytophthora through our national parks.

“This trial in Barrington Tops is the most complex environment we’ve ever asked these detection dogs to work in.

“While there is still more training to be done, the field trials are a promising outcome for future success.”

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