Dingoes save wildlife and improve stock grazing

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Dingoes can actually have benefits to the Australian wildlife ecology (Image via Flickr)

Dingoes have long been considered a natural pest, but perhaps it's time we worked with them instead of against them, writes Peter Mirschin.

JOINTLY IMPROVING CATTLE, sheep production and the environment is possible. The opportunity has been under our noses for years but may not be widely apparent. Substantial improvements to cattle farming can be realised immediately and, after some changes, also with sheep grazing, with both yielding benefits to the environment. Some cattle graziers are already doing it and are reaping the benefits. Savings for sheep producers can be replicated if we change our thinking.

The Natural Resources Committee in South Australia has recommended to the state Environment Minister that overabundant native “pest” species such as western grey kangaroo, little corellas, long-nosed fur seals and koalas, need to be culled.

Kangaroos grazing on vegetation decrease productivity on farmlands. Little corellas damage recreation areas and over prune native trees. Introduced koalas to Kangaroo island and the Mount Lofty Ranges are detrimentally impacting on eucalypt species. Seals interfere with fishing nets and reduce income for a struggling industry.

Culling could be tolerated as a short-term solution, but what about in the long term? Should we continue killing our native fauna? It’s a sad day that our we have created an environment that is so far out of whack that we have to resort to such archaic methods, where in the past nature kept these species in check.

Only recently we learnt that between the Federal, SA State Government and industry, $25 million will be spent on controlling “pest” species such as the dingo and crossbreed dogs by upgrading the dingo fence. This fence also inadvertently kills thousands of other native species such as emus. Dingoes are regarded by some to be already threatened and certainly functionally threatened.

In this century, we should not have to rely on such archaic methods like culling and fencing to control native “pests”. It is eminently possible that with our incredible intellect and the right financial incentives for our universities, we could develop mutually beneficial methods for our primary industries, native fauna and environment. It just needs a shift in the way we think.

For instance, some intelligent landowners have already acknowledged the benefit of working with nature rather than against it. The owners of Noonbah cattle stations in Queensland near Longreach are already reaping the benefits by allowing dingoes to establish their natural social structure on their properties where they chase off other dingoes and wild dogs. The owner, Queensland grazier Angus Emmott, also doesn’t cull kangaroos, which are controlled at very low numbers by dingoes thus benefitting pastures. Dingoes also control feral pigs, cats and foxes. Some calves are lost but they benefit from better pastures, greater biodiversity and soils.

Also on Woodgreen property in Central Australia, the owner Bob Purvis controls kangaroos using a stable population of dingoes and controlling water.

Moreover, it has been shown that lethal control of dingoes can have the opposite effect than desired in that there is an increase in the population of herbivores that compete with cattle for pasture and an increased incidence of attacks on stock. These innovative ideas need the support of governments and their agencies, but such support has been lacking.

There is now widespread acknowledgement that cats and foxes are unsustainably preying on native wildlife and in some areas have caused local extinctions. More widespread extinction of populations will follow unless these two devastating mesopredators are controlled over the whole of Australia and not just in predator-free enclosures.

The gut contents of three feral cats. (A) from near Roxby Downs in SA contained 33 lizards plus a mouse and bird (photo: John Read). (B) contained 33 lizards plus arthropods (photo: Sally South, funding for the study was provided by the Nature Foundation of SA). (C) from between Lake Torrens and Maree South Australia, contained two dragons and goanna parts plus invertebrates (photo: Sally South, funding for the study was provided by the Nature Foundation of SA). Taken from Mirtschin et al 2017

There are many estimates of native wildlife impacted on each year by cats and foxes. A reasonably conservative estimate is that feral cats take about 4.1 billion reptiles plus large numbers of mammals and birds and foxes take 1.7 billion reptiles plus many mammals and birds. As well as feral pigs, rabbits and goats, cats and foxes are controlled by dingoes. The use of dingoes to generate widespread control of these two latter devastating predators is the only feasible method known at this time. Dingoes are likely to control cats and foxes very quickly.

Putting dingoes to work for sheep farmers

One of the great barriers to reintroducing dingoes south of the dingo fence is the fact that dingoes attack sheep. It is completely understandable that sheep farmers would want to see dingoes controlled. It’s their livelihood that would be threatened. If this problem can be solved, dingoes will work for both sheep and cattle graziers and bring about significant economic benefits. 

Bringing back dingoes will reverse the imbalances we now see where the apex predator is absent. It is inevitable that those “pest” species identified by the Natural Resources Committee will all be impacted on by dingoes. It is therefore of paramount importance that governments make funds available to universities to carry out the necessary research to find devices, strategies and chemicals that can be applied which will make sheep unattractive to dingoes.

North of the dingo fence, cattle graziers should be encouraged to make use of ecologically functional dingo populations to enjoy net benefits of their impact on local ecosystems. They will control kangaroos, deer, goats, pigs and rabbits thus leaving more food for cattle production. The increase in smaller native animals resulting from cat and fox control will be important in nurturing and dispersal of native plants resulting in improved plant biodiversity, thus benefitting cattle.

Research is required before sheep can benefit. Governments should provide grant opportunities for universities to encourage the development of devices, chemicals or strategies to deter dingoes attacking sheep. This could include studies involving guardian dogs and new defensive breeds of sheep. Once they are identified, trials need to be conducted to assess benefits which should be published in peer-reviewed journals.

Time is running out for many of our small native animals. Delay in adopting these new strategies is also denying graziers of the full benefit of working with nature rather than against it.

Some allowance may be required for some threatened native species that could be temporarily negatively affected by the reintroduction of dingoes. This is to be expected. Special management strategies may be required. It is expected that this will be a short-term problem, though.

Peter Mirtschin is the founder of Venom Supplies and has published over 70 scientific papers on venom research, snake ecology, conservation and snake behaviour. Peter has featured in several television documentaries, being an ardent results-driven conservationist.

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