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Rufus proves a natural in battle to save Northern Ireland's red squirrels


Squirrel spotter: Conservationist Caroline Finlay with her dog Rufus

Squirrel spotter: Conservationist Caroline Finlay with her dog Rufus

Squirrel spotter: Conservationist Caroline Finlay with her dog Rufus

The fight to save Northern Ireland's endangered red squirrel population has a new canine weapon - a springer spaniel named Rufus.

With his keen sense of smell and laser-like vision, the six-year-old is able to spot red squirrels much faster than his human handler, conservationist Caroline Finlay.

Since July Rufus has been part of a team trying to sniff out squirrel pox, a disease that threatens to wipe out the foragers within the next decade.

It has contributed to a decline in the red squirrel population from a peak of about 3.5m to an estimated 120,000.

A recent cross-border collaboration with the Ulster Wildlife and Vincent Wildlife Trust, led by NUI Galway, detected significant changes in the ranges of red squirrels, particularly in Northern Ireland.

However, in urban areas, such as Belfast, their grey cousins continue to thrive.

Grey squirrels were introduced to Ireland early in the 20th century, and had spread to cover the eastern half of the island.

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As a result, the red squirrel range had contracted over several years and the native species was struggling to survive.

Bangor-based Caroline (32), who adopted Rufus four years ago, has now trained him into Northern Ireland's first red squirrel conservation dog.

She previously worked for Ulster Wildlife as a red squirrel officer and is now continuing to combine her conservation work as a volunteer alongside her day job with the Loughs Agency.

Caroline, who also spearheads Conservation Detection Dogs NI, had heard about a dog that Lancashire Wildlife Trust used to search for squirrels killed by squirrel pox and was keen to train Rufus.

The training included using special balls and pieces of rubber scented with samples from a squirrel that was found frozen to death a few winters ago and kept in the bottom of the freezer.

"Rufus has always been a natural searcher and is full of energy so it was a case of looking for games that would tire him out," Caroline explained.

"We based the training on a lot of nose games and scent work to make it enjoyable for Rufus and to build up his confidence through dog agility and caddy cross."

"We think he may have had some gun dog training in the past even though he was nervous wreck when we first got him and terrified of everything except loud noises like fireworks.

"He has loved the mental stimulation - springers like having work to do so he's really enjoyed having a purpose.

"He's trained with squirrels at the moment but eventually he could help with a whole range of conservation projects," Caroline added.

Most weekends Rufus and Caroline can be found monitoring woodlands that have had squirrel pox outbreaks before, including the Glens of Antrim and the Mournes.

"We have several areas in Northern Ireland where squirrel pox has killed a massive proportion of the population - within two weeks an outbreak can kill 90% of a colony," she added.

Caroline has several dogs now undergoing training to Rufus's level, including fellow springer spaniel Bailey, with the aim of creating an emergency team to detect squirrel pox outbreaks

"For us it's about saving the red squirrel population and Rufus is already doing a really important job in keeping their numbers up," she added.

"Since we have trained him we have noticed there have been no squirrel pox outbreaks."

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