Sniffer dogs trialled as solution to rabbit infestation at Mulligans Flat sanctuary in Canberra

Rangers are trialling the use of highly trained sniffer dogs to hunt down a nest of feral rabbits haunting Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary in Canberra's north.

Dogs are normally banned behind the predator-proof fence at the sanctuary.

But authorities have been bending the rules in the name of conservation to protect a burgeoning breeding colony of eastern bettongs that also inhabit the space.

Cats and foxes were eliminated from the area some time ago.

But Mulligans Flat ranger Mark Sweaney said that meant the sanctuary had become a "rabbit paradise", which was bad for the bettongs.

"We have created a place where rabbits can breed freely," he said.

"Really the only impact on rabbit population are birds of prey and any work we can do to control them."

In an effort to get rabbit numbers under control and eventually eliminate them, the ACT Government has called in Steve Austin and his dogs.

In recent years, Mr Austin's dogs have been turned loose in some of Australia's most sensitive wilderness areas.

On Macquarie Island, they helped control rabbits, rats and mice, and in other areas they have helped find threatened birds and detect dangerous weeds.

They were called in to Canberra to protect Mulligans Flat sanctuary's endangered bettongs by wiping out the competition.

"Their main job today is to find rabbits and let the rangers know exactly where they are, so they can put their management program into place," Mr Austin said.

'Trial part of broader rabbit control program'

Mr Sweaney said once the dogs located the rabbits, they would be killed by the ranger in the most humane way possible - by fumigation or shooting.

Mr Austin's English springer spaniels are highly trained animals who have been taught to sniff out the hiding spots and homes of feral animals without harming what is inside, using a sophisticated set of commands and signals.

As part of the trial, Mr Austin and his two dogs Tommy and Bolt will be working on finding rabbit burrows and learning to avoid bettongs.

"They have no contact whatsoever with the feral game that they find," Mr Austin said.

He said the same went for native animals, but it took time and training.

"A lot of on-lead work, a lot of time and a lot of effort has gone into it," Mr Austin said.

Ranger Mr Sweaney said once Mr Austin and his dogs had completed their trial run, a rabbit calicivirus would be introduced into the population.

"This will help us do the major control of the population," he said.

"Then later on in the program we'll hopefully be using the detection dogs to find the rabbits when they're at much lower numbers."

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