Mirella Toth, Project Officer, Scottish Invasive Species Initiative
I started to volunteer for the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative in March 2019 and have loved being involved ever since. I am from Hungary, am a motivated practical conservationist and love being outdoors and feeling like I’m doing something that matters. I learnt a lot being a volunteer and I was so pleased that I had the opportunity to join the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative team this summer as a Seasonal Project Officer and learn even more. As well as controlling invasive plants, part of my job was to work on the American mink control project, finding and catching invasive mink in the Spey and Findhorn, Nairn and Lossie catchments. As well as conservation I have another passion – dog handling and training which I was able to use this summer.
I used to train dogs for hunting as well as having over 7 years’ experience training police and truffle dogs in Hungary. When my boyfriend took a detection dog handler job with the Orkney Stoat Project, it opened my eyes to the possible use of dogs to help find American mink in the field. Imagine how amazing it would be to walk along the riverbanks, have a dog indicate the presence of mink and so know where to place our traps. I thought this could be my own project within the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative and so, when I had the opportunity to get a puppy my journey with Bonnie started.
Bonnie is a Hungarian wirehaired Vizsla. I have previous experience with the breed – they are excellent hunting dogs and good trackers which are ideal characteristics for my planned mink detection role. She is now 1 year old and is amazing. I started her obedience training when she was around 3 months old and moved on to search work a little later. Because of her young age she can still be easily distracted – a butterfly fluttering by or even her own shadow are sometimes more interesting distractions which makes the training more fun from my point of view. It is always a pleasure being around Vizsla’s – they are so charismatic.
I started her search training when she was 6 months old. Whenever I am working with her I put a harness on to show her that she is working – if she has a harness then we are working if not then the walks just for fun! My priority was to get her to confidently detect any sign of mink in the field. I started her training in my garden with a dead mink – which she was really interested in – and then later moving out and progressing to the banks of the River Spey where we could look to find some real-life mink tracks and signs.
Bonnie in training
Bonnie took to the job really well and during the summer she was a huge help to me when on the trail of the mink. When our volunteers on the River Spey found mink signs on their monitoring rafts it was up to me to put out traps in the area to try and remove the culprit. Initially (pre-Bonnie!) I spent hours looking for mink tracks and signs on the ground and, using my experience and knowledge, set my trap in a suitable place. I then waited and checked the trap each day but didn’t catch anything – the mink can be an elusive quarry. Towards the end of the summer I felt Bonnie was ready for her first real mink mission on the River Spey. I took her to the river and she soon indicated on a spot on the riverbank – so I moved the trap there. The result? Success – I caught not just one, but to date, four mink from Bonnie’s trap!
But her success on the Spey was not just luck. On the River Nairn I had the same situation. Volunteers reported mink sightings and although I had my traps out and set after weeks and weeks, nothing had been caught. We decided a change of plan was needed and that we should move the traps to a new location and so I put Bonnie in the car and we headed to the river. Again, she found a minky spot and I moved the trap there based on her advice! A couple of days later we had caught a mink in it.
I am very happy with the results from this summer and with Bonnie’s progress. There are so many factors to think about when locating a trap to try and increase the likelihood of catching the mink and, even for the experienced, there is still a good bit of luck required! I think that even an experienced trapper would save so much time and effort with the help of a trained dog like mine. Although I’m moving to a new job for the winter, I’m sure Bonnie will come back and find more American mink for the project in the future. Watch this space!
If you’d like to find out more about the Mink Control Project or are interesting in volunteering and monitoring a mink raft or trap visit – www.invasivespecies.scot or contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org