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BLOG: Sophie the dog goes to ‘Cat Camp’

The ‘Cat Camp’ took place at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, a four-hour drive north-west of Alice Springs.

Over the years a number of techniques have been used to manage feral cats here.

It was decided the first ever 'Cat Camp' would be a place to share and showcase different cat management approaches, hosted by sanctuary owner Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and Rachel Paltridge, of Desert Wildlife Services (DWS).

Camp participants included AWC staff, Nyirripi Rangers (from Central Land Council), Kiwirrkurra Rangers and representatives from Queensland Murray-Darling Committee (QMDC), Central Desert Native Title Services, and Territory Natural Resource Management.

The Indigenous rangers showed how they used traditional hunting methods, combined with the use of DWS’ leg-hold traps, while QMDC introduced Sophie, an English Springer Spaniel trained to sniff out feral animals.

Photo: Dave introduces Sophie, the sniffer dog, to AWC's Newhaven Sanctuary.

Although using dogs as a tool for sniffing out and tracking animals was new to some of us, Nolia from Kiwirrkurra had used dingoes to perform a similar role when she was growing up in Pintupi country, across the border in Western Australia.

In fact, before they moved into Kiwirrkurra community, Nolia and her family used to take up to four dingoes on hunts, primarily searching out kangaroo, but often also emu and goanna.

Sophie, on the other hand, specialises in detecting feral pests; foxes, rabbits and cats, especially in south-east Queensland from where she hails, under the guidance of her QMDC handler, Dave Berman. She is one of two Conservation Detector dogs owned by QMDC for the sole purpose of pinpointing the location of specific feral pests.

Having determined the pests’ density, the dogs’ handlers can then carry out the most appropriate control method.

On our first morning, Dave demonstrated Sophie’s abilities by having her find hidden objects and cat scats around our base.

Despite the heat and new surroundings and no doubt new scents and smells, Sophie was able to show her array of tracking skills as Dave educated the group on training tips and methods.

Following Dave and Sophie’s display and a knowledge-sharing morning between all attendees, the afternoon was to be spent tracking feral cats in the bush.

Christine of Nyirripi had earlier sourced cat tracks on a graded track not far from our base so the afternoon was to begin from these. The skills of the rangers meant that three cats about 400m away in the scrub were located quickly.

While they did this Sophie took the opportunity to acclimatise to moving through spinifex country on the trail of a feral cat.

The following morning, the rangers identified a further two tracks made from both a large male and large female cat. The tracks disappeared in different directions and thus our large group split up into two groups.

Nolia, on the trail of the large female, was joined by Dave and Sophie, while Christine led a second group for the male.

It was a case of new and old methodology teaming up together in this first group as Sophie wears a radio tracker which feeds into a GPS unit carried by Dave, while Nolia carried just her water. However, it wasn’t long before Nolia and Sophie discovered that by working together they could bring the hunt to a speedier resolution.

After a few hours of tracking they got close to the target. On Nolia’s command of ‘Oy’, Sophie would sprint towards their quarry, flushing the cat from the long grass. By repeating this process a few times, they were able to tire out the feral much quicker than Nolia would’ve managed alone.

Photo: With the help of Sophie (seated) handler Dave and Ranger Nolia were able to remove this feral cat from the sanctuary, which will help protect native species in the area like the Great desert skink.

In total, it took four hours of working together before Nolia was able to capture this pest animal and remove it from the landscape. Removing feral cats helps to protect native animals such as the Great desert skink (Lipholis kintorei), one of the threatened species that it preys on.

Territory NRM, through the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme, has been supporting sanctuary owner Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Desert Wildlife Services and Christine from the Nyirripi Rangers's work for the past three years.

Collectively, our work at Newhaven has reduced feral pressures on populations of the Great desert skink and Mulgara.

‘Cat Camp’ helped bring together other parties to learn how this has been done as well as discuss other potential methods. The use of sniffer dogs has now inspired Nolia to train a dingo pup to detect cats with her back in Kiwirrkurra.

Since Nolia’s early life was in the bush hunting with dingoes, perhaps our new and old technologies are not so far removed after all!

Thanks to all who attended, to Rachel of DWS for organising Cat Camp and to AWC’s Newhaven staff, especially Joe, Danae and Darcy, for their hospitality.




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