Conservation dogs set to sniff out and save wildlife

Councillor Maria Suarez, handler Tom Garrett, Biosecurity Technical Officer Rita Everitt and handler Agaba Hannington with Cooper and Hakka. 

Their actions have saved countless native wildlife and where they go, the cameras follow. 

Conservation dogs are back on the Sunshine Coast, with up-and-coming canine Cooper taking the lead and his protégé Hakka in tow. Their target is the ever-present European red fox.  

Along with their handlers Tom Garrett and Agaba Hannington, the dogs’ current mission is sniffing out dens where foxes would pair and breed, as part of Sunshine Coast Council’s ongoing Coastal Fox Control Program.  

The program, now in its ninth year, aims to decrease fox populations at a time when they are most active and to reduce their predation on vulnerable native species including the spotted tail quoll, water mouse, Eastern ground parrot, plus the endangered green and loggerhead turtles at the crucial egg and hatchling stage. 

Council estimates the program has saved the lives of 11,311 native small mammals, 31,391 birds, 10,612 reptiles including turtles and 699 macropods since 2015, based on studies of fox diets in our region. 

In 2022, veteran conservation dog Rocky found 194 fox dens, with 18 being actively used by breeding pairs. 

Environment Portfolio Councillor Maria Suarez said Rocky was a living legend for his work on the Sunshine Coast and around Australia and wished him a relaxing time as he moved into retirement. 

“How many people can say they’ve saved so many native animals?” Cr Suarez said. 

“These conservation dogs can sniff out dens where foxes pair and breed and can tell their handler when a fox is using the den. 

“It’s an extremely targeted approach with almost no risk to native species. 

“During the denning season, conservation dogs are key to managing fox numbers before they breed.” 


Handler Tom Garrett and conservation dog Cooper out on the job. Photos: Contributed  

Rocky, an English Springer Spaniel, is almost ready to put his paws up after working as a conservation dog alongside his trainer and handler Tom Garrett for about eight years – or 56 dog years. 

Now it’s Cooper’s time to shine as he shows the ropes to his young canine comrade, Hakka. 

Cr Suarez said it would mark the end of a distinguished career, with Rocky’s efforts across Australia regularly making news bulletins and leaving a conservation legacy in our region. 

“This work to reduce fox predation has helped our native species to recover, and we’ve now had confirmed sightings of the endangered Spotted Tail Quoll within the fox control program area. 

“Before those sightings, this species had not been confirmed anywhere in our region for 70 years.” 

The Coastal Fox Control Program 

The control program targets areas between Peregian Beach and the Maroochy River, including Council-managed and state-managed lands as well as some private properties. 

Cooper and Hakka have been given an exemption to enter and be off-leash in a prohibited zone to carry out their conservation work. 

Foxes found in active dens are euthanised under Council’s policies and procedures and in line with Queensland’s animal welfare laws. 

Council officers also use soft-catch foothold traps and chemical controls in the control program area between March and November. 

Areas included in the control program are clearly identified with warning signs at all entrances and residents living near the program areas are notified in advance. 

It is your responsibility to ensure your pet’s safety and not let them roam. 

If you spot a suspected fox den in the program area, report it to Council on 5475 7272.  

The European red fox was deliberately introduced to Australia for recreational hunting in 1855 and has become a significant contributor to native animal decline across the nation. 

The European red fox is a restricted pest under the Queensland Government Biosecurity Act 2014. 

Did you know? 

A conservation dog is a specially trained animal that is used to detect a specific object for the purpose of wildlife conservation. 

Conservation dogs may help detect feral animals like foxes or rabbits and can also help survey native populations of koalas through scat detection. English Springer Spaniels are considered an ideal breed for conservation work because of their excellent nose for tracking, low stature to infiltrate dense vegetation and their responsiveness to training. 

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