Humans have enlisted the help of dog’s scenting ability in conservation for many years and now, a spaniel in the six counties of northern Ireland is searching for red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris). In spite of their name, native red squirrels are no longer common in the UK, having been ousted by the American grey (Sciurus carolinensis) which was introduced as an exotic in the 19thC. Grey squirrels are not affected by the squirrelpox virus that is fatal to the red squirrel and they also outcompete the red squirrels for food, having a broader palate.
Rufus locates squirrels so that they can be examined for signs of pox, enabling the disease to be tracked. A 2018 study showed that improvements in pine marten populations have assisted the red squirrel population, not least because grey squirrels form part of the pine marten diet.
A few more dogs like Rufus in addition to a managed marten population could help the return of a much loved native breed.