We know what it's like to be a bat (thanks to philosopher Thomas Nagel's classic What Is It Like To Be A Bat?) but what can it be like to be an English springer spaniel?
Steve Austin's two spaniels Bolt and Tom, doing experimental rabbit-detecting work at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary this week, have super senses of smell we can hardly imagine. What a wonderland of aromas they must live in! Each of them has, equipping its spectacular brace of nostrils, perhaps 220 million olfactory receptors. We poor humans have only an unremarkable five million of those. We can't smell rabbits at all but for Bolt and Tom they must pong, intoxicatingly, to high heaven.
We caught up with Bolt and Tom at lunch-time on Tuesday after they'd had a flat-out (and very successful) first morning's rabbit-seeking. Resting in their compartments in Austin's vehicle, they were panting noisily and their great big tongues were lolling, but (for sheer exuberance is a hallmark of the breed) they cascaded out to romp around while they were photographed.
Why are Sydney-based Steve Austin and Bolt (seven) and his apprentice Tom (18 months) at Mulligans Flat?
"We're here this week," Austin explained, "to do a trial to see how the dogs will react first to the bettongs, to make sure they won't harm the bettongs, which is very important."
"And the other job the dogs will be doing will be finding out where the rabbit warrens are, to see if there's any rabbits and where they're living so that they can be [disposed of] so that the bettongs can prosper without having to compete with rabbits."
Eastern bettongs are rabbit-sized, kangaroo-like marsupials. Released into the relative safety of Mulligans Flat (it boasts a predator-repelling fence) in 2012, they appear to be thriving and multiplying now.
Austin and his dogs are being tried in the war against rabbits because in spite of great success in reducing rabbits in the sanctuary in orthodox ways, pockets of stubborn bunnies persist.
"They're the SAS of rabbits these [surviving] ones," Austin laughed on Tuesday.
"Everything's been thrown at them."
Well everything except, until this week, detection dogs. Austin and other English springers have had great rabbit-detecting success in similar circumstances at Macquarie Island. The system is that the dogs find out where the warrens are and then, when and if the springers spring the quarry, marksmen shoot those rabbits.
Tuesday's first morning of the trial had been a very promising start. Industrious Bolt and Tom had found, by detecting the (for them) heady aroma of rabbits at least a dozen new warrens that were quite invisible to the human eye.
But how does Austin stop them from chasing every living thing that moves?
"Well they've go to be very obedient for a start. So if a bettong is put up I whistle that they've got to stop [where they are]. All these dogs are trained to be non-target on all macropods. That's red kangaroos down to bettongs. They're not allowed to touch them. They saw an echidna this morning and they had a good look at it but I just called out 'Good dogs!' and off they went. Every time we get an experience like that we do it so that the dogs learn. It's very important with a conservation dog. It's not only about finding the the feral animal it's also about making sure that native animals are never touched, never harmed. That's critical."
Bolt and Tom are working dogs but, needless to say (here this columnist should own up to owning an English springer and to doting on the breed), they are endearingly sweet-natured and lovely to look at. When on Tuesday Steve Austin observed, affectionately, that "Bolt is a very ugly dog" you knew that he, Austin, was being tongue in cheek. The notion of an ugly English springer is the perfect oxymoron, like a lead balloon, a resounding tinkle, a castle in the air, a redeeming vice.
Austin loves English springers and for us ran through a catalogue of their redeeming virtues which included their being so people friendly. "As you can see" he indicated, pointing to where Bolt was canoodling in the shade with some doting rangers.
The breed also has what Austin calls "a very good work ethic" that is in fact a little too good for their own good. Bolt is such a workaholic, Austin knows, that "On a hot day like today if I'm not careful he'll just go on and on and on until he drops dead. So I've got to stop and give him water."
Even during Tuesday's lunch break Bolt chewed enthusiastically (drooling attractively) at a big stick and Austin divined that this was because Bolt was "bored" and wanted something to do.
Acting Ranger in Charge, Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, Mark Sweaney, said on Tuesday that the program is a jointly funded program between the Capital Woodlands and Wetlands Conservation Trust and the ACT Government.
"In most land management situations rabbit eradication is an unrealistic goal, however this sanctuary is surrounded by a predator-proof fence which stops re-invasion and makes eradication possible. The sanctuary is already free of foxes and cats. Eradicating rabbits from the sanctuary will create the largest box-gum woodland reserve in Australia that is free from the impact of feral animals.
"As firearms will be used during the trial, the sanctuary will be closed from 6am Tuesday 17 February to 8pm Friday 20 February 2015. Sanctuary gates will be locked and signage will be erected."
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