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Detector Dogs Saved Macquarie Island

For an incredible seven years, teams of dedicated handlers and their dogs scoured World Heritage-listed Macquarie Island, in a project unprecedented in Australia, to eradicate the entire island of rabbits and rodents.

If it wasn’t for these dogs the entire $25 million dollar program would have been an incredible waste. The detection dogs discovered every single one of the 13 rabbits that had survived! 

If those rabbits were left on the island, the entire project would have failed as rabbits breed so very quickly the entire 7 year project would have failed.


October 2009 - Macquarie Island is a unique place, a long, thin strip — 34km long and about 4km wide — 1500km southeast of Hobart, halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica. This is one of the few areas in this part of the planet where native birds and other wildlife can breed. It’s also the only island made wholly of rocks from the earth’s mantle (the hot, semi-solid bit above the earth’s core). Even in today’s modern ships it’s a rugged three-day trip to get there ...
Sealers landing a boiler at the Nuggets c. 1911-1913
Seal hunters discovered this remote speck in the Southern Ocean in 1810. It was that isolation that prevented the island from being ruined, even though for the next century it was home to an industry that slaughtered fur seals for their skins and then elephant seals and penguins for their oil. 

The men brought cats with them deliberately, and rats and mice inadvertently, and introduced rabbits as a source of fresh meat. 

No surprise: the cats went feral and the rabbits and rodents multiplied, so even though the island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933 the native flora and fauna were fighting for survival.

By 1979 the rabbit population was estimated at 150,000. The myxomatosis disease was ­introduced, and over the next decade numbers dropped by 90 per cent. In 1985 the feral cats were eradicated, and in 1997 the island was awarded World Heritage status. But with the cats gone, the rabbits again had free rein and as the effect of myxomatosis waned, numbers began to rebound. By 2008, rabbit numbers were past 130,000 again.

The rabbits’ favourite food — the island’s grasses and what are called “mega-herbs” — are a really important part of the ecosystem in a place thrashed by some of the wildest weather on the planet. The plants provide cover for the rocks, preventing erosion, keeping the giant hills in one piece, giving seabirds somewhere to build their burrows; they also provide a habitat for all the invertebrates such as spiders and beetles that are ­necessary to keep the whole system in check.

By 2008, the effect was simply devastating. Not only had the rabbits changed huge swathes of what should have been diverse wilderness into what one scientist called “grazing lawns”, but their relentless feeding was a big factor in a couple of major landslips, one of which had wiped out a colony of penguins. There were bare slopes around the island and the ground was riddled with burrows. Rangers from Tasmania’s Parks & Wildlife Service had shot 5000 rabbits in 2005, but it had made no appreciable difference. 

It was time for a different approach, so the state and federal governments got together to fund the new Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project.


Steve Austin trained detector dogs including working Springer Spaniels, Labradors, Terriers and a Terrier cross to search the entire 22 square kilometres of Macquarie Island to determine if the previous baiting program had been successful.

Keith Springer, a passionate conservationist program, was put in charge of implementing a plan that involved killing most of the rabbits with baits dropped from helicopters, then bringing in detection dogs to eliminate any survivors. That was where Steve Austin, a renowned Australian dog trainer came into the project. He explains:

“Attempting something on this scale was a first. The project would entail providing seven dogs to detect rabbit scat, tracks and burrows. They would need to be ready to go in two years’ time. They could not under any circumstances touch the rabbits, scare or have contact with the native wildlife, damage the plant life, or harm the environment on the island. I couldn’t train just seven dogs; I had to have backups.

Guus Knopers, a trainer from New Zealand, delivered another five dogs — Labradors — which, with my seven Springer Spaniels, made a total of 12. We agreed on a uniform set of signals so we wouldn’t confuse them by ­having different cues from each trainer for an identical task: not only the specifics of each whistle command (how many times you blow, and for how long, to ­signal “stop”, “turn left”, “turn right”, “come”), but even what frequency of whistle to use.

One challenge was training the dogs for an environment that I couldn’t replicate. 
I had no wave-tossed ship, no penguins, no elephant seals, no biting wind and no snow. I used the hundreds of chickens on our property at Mount Colah in Sydney’s outer north as penguin substitutes, and cows in place of the large animals. And, come winter, the mountain country of NSW and ­Victoria is very cold and snowy, so I could at least take the dogs there to give them a taste of what was to come.

By October 2009 it was time for a test voyage to Macquarie Island. I had to take two of the dogs and prove they could work without disturbing the penguins or anything else. I chose Ash and Gus and we flew to Hobart, then boarded the Australian Antarctic Division research flagship Aurora Australis for the three-day voyage.


Nothing had prepared me for the reality of ­Macquarie Island. It was sheer, wild magnificence. The rocky shore gives way to hills that lead up to huge escarpments running right around the island. They encircle a large central plateau dotted by freshwater lakes and streams that feed waterfalls crashing down over the cliffs. 

Even in cold, driving rain it was a place of extraordinary beauty. 

Rabbits were absolutely everywhere. You could stand on any spot and look around and you’d see bare soil with burrows every metre or so and rabbits by the hundreds just hopping about. Other than the tussocks, the vegetation that did exist was stripped almost to the ground and looked scarcely alive. The main work of removing these pests wasn’t going to happen on this trip. Only after the mass extermination using poisoned bait, when a mere handful of rabbits remained, would the hunting begin. 

Rookery of Royal Penguins on Macquarie Island
The big test for the dogs this time was to prove they would not harm native wildlife. We had to walk right through a colony of about 5000 penguins — both dogs together, by my side, offleash. 

Any flicker, any growl would have been enough for the whole idea to be abandoned, but the dogs were perfect. Despite the intense new sensations all around them (which included the unbelievable stink produced by the colony — penguins look great but the smell of their poo is diabolical), they did exactly what they’d been trained to do.

Steve Austin and Gus, keeping a safe distance from Elephant Seals 

The dogs passed every test — including the elephant seal wallow — and two days later we boarded the ship home. Gus and Ash were ­kennelled in one of the helicopter hangars at the rear. I went to see them four times a day, exer­cising them on deck or just letting them run inside the hangar, and feeding them. But then we hit what the ship’s captain, Scott Laughlin, described as some very bad weather. On the Great Southern Ocean scale, that is what most of us would call “horrendous”. Twice the entire ship was underwater. It climbed the mountainous seas and fell back down again, over and over.

Flax uses Colin as a pillow during a pause in the day's work
I’d seen to the dogs before the weather turned, then Scotty said, “No one’s going out. It’s too dangerous.” But 20 hours later, with the sea still raging, I said, “Scotty, I’ve got those two dogs down there, I have to give them water and food.” He said, “Well, you’re not going down, mate. Will they live?” “Yes, they’ll live,” I told him. “But I can’t just leave them without any water.” “Sorry,” he said firmly.

Two hours later it was still just as bad, but I didn’t have a choice — I had to take care of my animals. Scotty wasn’t happy about it but he let me and the first mate go, harnessed to each other. We opened the deck door and stepped into the gale, taking turns hooking ourselves onto the railing. The waves were smashing over us so hard it was like being hit in the head with cricket bats. After what felt like an hour we reached the rear of the ship. The dogs weren’t distressed, but they were certainly pleased to see us. We stayed about two hours, giving them food and water and cleaning up after them.

Back outside the weather was even worse. We were almost all the way back when the first mate went down, his feet washed from under him, a wave smacking his head into the metal deck. I picked him up and got us inside. Now we knew that when we came back with the full contingent of 12 dogs for the eradication they would need to be housed somewhere we could reach them safely, no matter what the weather.

Gus and Ash dutifully ignoring the Penguins
The baiting was to take place in mid-2010 and the dogs, the handlers, trainer Guus and I would return a few months later. Baits would be dropped using special hoppers slung beneath helicopters that released the poisoned baits at a controlled rate. 

Winter was the best time, despite the weather, because it was when the fewest native creatures were on the island, many of the birds having migrated to warmer climes. Vegetation was also at its least abundant, so the rabbits would be more likely to eat the baits.

The bait drops began on June 5 that year, but the weather was so bad it only went for five days over the next three weeks, and only 10 per cent of the island was covered. Casualties were higher than expected among scavenger birds such as the endangered southern giant petrel, which died after eating the corpses of poisoned rabbits. Other birds died because they ate the baits directly. 

The rangers began collecting the carcasses of the poisoned animals so they couldn’t be scavenged and calicivirus, an ­infectious disease fatal to rabbits but not ­harmful to birds who might scavenge them, was introduced in February 2011. It hadn’t been used before because of fears it might not do well in such a cold, wet climate. It proved to be a great adapter to the environment and raced through the rabbit population, killing off between 80 and 90 per cent.

Daily training sessions onboard the Aurora Australis
Now everything was set for the dogs. Guus and I ran a 10-day training camp for them and the handlers in Hobart. It was important to match them correctly, because they would be ­living together for the next year. 

Then, in late July, we set out for Macquarie Island. This time I had one Labrador and six Springer Spaniels with me, including Katie, a brilliant little female ­Spaniel, one of the best dogs I’ve ever trained. 

She loved a pat, and almost every afternoon after training in Sydney I would have a beer and sit in the sun with her and talk about the world and its problems. Surprisingly, she had an answer for every one of them.
Katie, the Springer Spaniel - harnessed and ready for a day's work on Macquarie Island
We knew from aerial and ground surveys that only a small number of rabbits were left. It was important to get rid of those last few because even a single breeding pair of rabbits can, in theory, produce 350,000 descendants in five years. It’s common for an unchecked rabbit population to increase eight or 10 times in a breeding season. So even two rabbits were too many to leave on the island if they were a ­fertile male and female.

Guus and I had three weeks to make sure the training we had given the dogs and handlers had been effective. In the coming year, they would cover every square metre of the island. GPS trackers on the dogs’ collars would ensure this could be done on systematic grids. Even when they caught a rabbit they wouldn’t know if it was the last one or not — only time would tell.

Rabbit Hunter Nancye Williams with dog Katie taking a break
When the dog indicated urine or fresh droppings the protocol was for the handler to radio it in. 

The rabbit would then be humanely killed, either by being shot, by having its burrow fumigated or by being captured in what’s called a soft-jaw trap (which prevents the animal from getting away but does not harm it), then cleanly shot.

Nature had to take its course as if we weren’t there: the purpose of the project was to undo the damage that had followed humans’ arrival on the island. Human waste was treated on site and dog waste was collected. We truly left nothing but footprints and took nothing but photographs.

Steve Austin checks a rabbit burrow following dogs' indication
The dogs were required not to come within 10m of the native wildlife — but of course the wildlife didn’t know that. So we’d be kneeling at the edge of a rabbit hole as one of the dogs checked it and we’d turn around to find eight penguins behind us, peering over our shoulders to see what we were looking at. The dogs would just look at them as if to say, “Can’t you see I’m busy here?” and go about their business.

At the end of the three weeks Guus and I said goodbye to the dogs and handlers and sailed away knowing we’d done all we could. It turned out that only 13 rabbits had survived the double hit of calicivirus and bait, a far lower number than even the most optimistic projection. The last was gone by that November, just four months after the dogs arrived. It was an amazing result.

MIPEP Team on Macquarie Island (February 2012)
In April 2014, the project was declared complete more than a year early and almost $5 million under budget. The dogs and handlers had walked a total of 92,000km, capping off an incredible effort from so many — from the electricians and plumbers who maintained the huts, to the ships’ crews, the helicopter pilots and the staff who organised the provisioning and logistics.

I was there in Hobart on April 7, 2014, to welcome the return of the final group of dogs and handlers on the ship L’Astrolabe. It was an atmosphere of jubilation. The scale of what we had collectively achieved was recognised by the state’s governor, Peter Underwood, who held a reception for us at Government House, and by the opening up of the lawns of Parliament House for the public to join the celebrations in an event named “Miracle on Macca”. 

The success of the project should give heart to environmentalists across Australia. In just a couple of hundred years human beings had nearly wrecked Macquarie Island. But we learnt from our mistakes and figured out how to fix them. And that’s crucial for us as a species. We were able to restore the island’s wild beauty, making it one of the world’s best conservation stories and without doubt the highlight of my career.

And the dogs? They went to other important jobs, or to well-earned rests. Gus retired and is having a lovely time on the NSW north coast with former Australian Antarctic Division station leader ­Narelle Campbell. And brilliant Katie is still working, doing fox-scat detection to ­protect Tasmania’s wildlife. I hope when she retires I’ll be able to arrange for her to come back to me, to continue the in-depth discussions we used to have.

Edited extract from Working Dog Heroes by Steve Austin with Hazel Flynn (ABC Books, $29.99) – featured in the May 2016 – Dog Lovers Book Club

Australia Post released a stamp series called “The Dogs That Saved Macquarie Island”, honouring the amazing work that was achieved. 

The stamps capture these amazing dogs and features some of the handlers who worked endlessly to achieve the success of the eradication of three invasive species.


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