NO livestock producer’s budget is going to benefit from wiping 500 sheep off the balance sheet, but that’s what wild dogs have done for James Robertson last year.
Mr Robertson didn’t count that many killed or maimed animals. He counted most of that tally, and guessed the rest from absent lambs. One mob of 520 ewes, 100 per cent in lamb, only produced 170 lambs for marking.
The cost is not merely in lost animals, but in future wool and replacement breeders, and the loss of investment in genetics.
Most of the Wongwibinda district, east of Guyra in northern NSW, has moved out of sheep.
Mr Robertson, who with wife Wendy owns 2000 hectare “Fishington”, wants to stay with them, despite sleepless nights, because they provide enterprise diversity and have been consistently profitable for many years.
That diversity is currently proving very attractive as cattle prices wallow in the doldrums. Sheep are also much easier to maintain through the current tough New England winter than cattle.
Mr Robertson’s problem, as he sees it, is that he is on the edge of the 1000 square kilometre Guy Fawkes National Park.
The local wild dog association maintains a vigorous aerial dog-baiting program, but Mr Robertson argues that it’s little use just creating a dog buffer on private land. To be of any value, he believes the buffer should also extend into the rugged park.
On this point, the park’s management is less keen. In 2013, the Wongwibinda Wild Dog Association put out 2200 baits; the Dorrigo office of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) felt it only necessary to put out 118.
In 2014, as Wongwibinda became a clear leader in stock losses to dogs on the New England, NPWS ramped up its baiting substantially in percentage terms: it put out 560 baits, versus 2800 laid by the dog wild association.
Mr Robertson understands the NPWS duty to preserve the park’s key predator, but not at the expense of its neighbours.
He has a well-maintained dog fence - dog-related work costs him about two hours a day, every day, he estimates - but in other areas of the district the once-continuous barrier fence between farms and park has been let go.
Although he has seen some properties have success with Maremmas, Mr Robertson doesn’t believe the guard dogs will suit his operation. At times, he has 20-30 mobs of sheep. Where does he post the dogs?
The best answer, Mr Robertson believes, is for NPWS to run its country as a good landholder, providing the resources its animals need to prosper within its boundaries, and doing what is necessary to keep those animals within the park.