RANGERS in the NSW Riverina region have spent the past fortnight 'donkey-whispering', as 19 feral donkeys from the Northern Territory have learnt the finer points of protecting sheep from wild dog predation.
The donkeys, which form part of an estimated wild population of up to five million, will be used as guard animals to protect sheep on properties near Holbrook, Tooma, Tumbarumba, Woomargama and Wymah.
They have been recruited by Hume Livestock Health and Pest Authority (LHPA) ranger Michael McFarlane, who has overseen a successful trial of three local donkeys on cattle and sheep property "Ardrossan", east of Holbrook.
No maulings under donkeys' watch
Fifty sheep were killed in two wild dog attacks on "Ardrossan" in December, but Mr McFarlane said there had been no maulings since the trial began in January with the hand-reared donkeys from Warrnambool.
“Since the introduction of the donkeys, no reports of wild dog attacks have been received on this property, despite wild dogs being heard howling in the timbered hills above the area where the sheep are grazing,” Mr McFarlane said.
“I’ve been trying to get some more but it’s hard to source a number of donkeys at once because we don’t have any real commercial breeders of donkeys in Australia.
“The alternative was to catch some wild ones from central Australia out in the bush and bring them back - and that’s what we’ve done.”
Each donkey cost $500 to buy and $180 to transport with a Department of Lands wild dog control grant funding the project.
The donkeys arrived from Alice Springs on October 5 and since then have been subject to health checks and preparation for distribution. Mr McFarlane said these donkeys were now at a point where they could be handled safely and introduced into a mob of sheep.
Donkeys are not little horses
“Over the next couple of weeks I’ll continue to handle them and quieten them down,” Mr McFarlane said.
“They’re remarkable animals, they’re super intelligent.
“They look like a horse with big ears but I’ve found it’s best to train them like they’re a dog with big ears.”
Mr McFarlane will host an LHPA field day at “Ardrossan”, Holbrook, on October 30 to outline the benefits of donkeys, however he warns against seeing them as a cure-all.
“The whole idea of guard animals is not to stop the attacks but minimise the damage,” he said.
“We’ve got to look at wild dogs as something that we’re always going to have, we’re never going to get rid of them completely.
“If we have another attack at Ardrossan and lose two or three that’s a success.”
While donkeys are docile around people, their strong dislike of canines mean care is needed around farm or house dogs. Aggression can also be a concern at lambing or breeding, and individual donkeys will react differently to similar circumstances. Jacks (males) are not recommended, while jennies or geldings are usually suitable.
The use of donkeys as guard animals has proven popular in Canada, the Swiss Alps and also Texas. A 2003 NSW Department of Primary Industries report noted 22 per cent of Texan sheep and goat producers were using or had used donkeys as flock guards.
The field day will cover observations and experiences of the ranger on initial handling of the wild donkeys; the range of guard animals used in Australia; training and health care of guard donkeys; biosecurity, and 'how donkeys are not little horses'.
After the information session, participants will get to see how the three donkeys which were part of the original trial, have settled into their new roles as guard animals, and ask questions of the operations manager of the property. To book for the field day phone the authority’s office on (02) 6040 4210 or Mr McFarlane directly on 0427 362 703.