WORK on the long-awaited 660 kilometre Esperance extension of the historic State Barrier Fence has started after an official opening at Ravensthorpe last week, but native title issues will still need to be ironed out before it is completed.
Construction of the $11 million, 1.35 metre-high fence, will be co-ordinated by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) and is expected to take two-and-a-half to three years to complete.
The project, which has been 20 years in the making, got the go ahead in April after final environmental approval.
It has been funded from contributions by local, State and Federal governments, with Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) providing a specialised Caterpillar fencing machine suitable for the terrain it will cover for the duration of the work.
The State government contributed $6.9m as part of its support of the livestock industry to combat wild dogs.
The Federal government contributed $1.955m, while the Esperance Shire allocated $1.5m in kind for grid construction and the Ravensthorpe Shire gave $280,000.
The project will allow the State's Barrier Fence to run 1850km from the Zuytdorp cliffs, north of Kalbarri, to Condingup, east of Esperance.
Original sections of the State Barrier Fence were built between 1902 and 1907 to stop rabbits moving across from the east.
It plays an important role in preventing the entry of wild dogs and emus from the rangelands into the agricultural region.
The State government is still in discussions with two native title groups regarding sections of the fence subject to native title.
WA Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the State government was making the landmark project a double-win by supporting employment and training opportunities for local businesses and for Aboriginal people.
"The first 8.5 kilometres of the fence build will involve training the Esperance Tjaltjraak Aboriginal Rangers in fencing construction so they are able to seek future contracting opportunities," Ms MacTiernan said.
"Wild dogs have loomed large for a number of years as an existential threat to sheep farming in the Esperance and Ravensthorpe regions.
"We have seen the State government work with industry, Federal and local governments to provide a funded fencing solution so farmers can take advantage of booming sheep meat and wool prices.
"This project forms part of a strategic approach through the WA Wild Dog Action Plan, to support industry and landholders to manage wild dogs in agricultural and pastoral areas of WA."
Esperance Biosecurity Association (EBA) and WA Stud Merino Breeders' Association president Scott Pickering said it had been a long battle to get the fence funded and thanked local shires for pitching in as, otherwise it might not have got off the ground.
Mr Pickering said the EBA came close to giving up on the fence before the local shires committed funding.
"I've been pushing for this for 19 years," he said.
"The group has been pushing for this for 16 years.
"We have to recognise the minister (Alannah MacTiernan) - she recognised that vermin and wild dogs were a big problem and she did what she said she was going to do.
"Everyone said it was too costly and wasn't going to happen so it just shows you that if you get a group of farmers together and just keep pushing you can achieve things."
Mr Pickering said since 2004 the EBA had trapped, baited or killed close to 500 wild dogs in the area.
"The fence will bring some confidence back into the livestock industry," he said.
"We had sheep producers get out because of wild dogs.
"It is good news for the Merino industry, but it also protects crops against emus and kangaroos."
Mr Pickering said the Esperance region consistently sent two million tonnes of grain to the port and he hoped that would continue if not improve with the fence up.
He also recognised AWI's contribution which was "great" considering the reduction in levy funds and its commitments to other fences in the Eastern States.
AWI project manager - vertebrate pests Ian Evans said AWI's contribution of construction machinery, worth about $205,000, would help ensure the future of small stock farming in WA.
He said for the past three years AWI had contributed a fencing machine in Queensland, which has finished about 70 per cent of the wild dog fence under construction - with "generally good outcomes".
Mr Evans said "just about every fence in Australia has dogs on both sides of it, just different densities".
"Over the next few years, I see that it can really assure the future of WA's small stock - sheep and goats," he said.
"WA has a golden opportunity with 98pc of sheep behind the fence.
"Yes there are dogs inside the fence, for those dealing with it, but relative to Queensland and New South Wales areas, WA has an opportunity with good support from the community to get rid of the dogs within the fence.
"It's not going to be easy.
"If the Recognised Biosecurity Groups (RBGs) had a good two to three years of 90pc participation they could eradicate the dogs.
"It's early days and not easy but they are learning as they go.
"The early signs are promising for the RBGs.
"With support and participation they can do the job and do it well."
Mr Evans said the Caterpillar loader was capable of completing five to six kilometres a day on a clear site.
"It is achievable but it varies downward from that depending on the path it travels."
He said the machine, on tracks, was suitable for WA conditions with an equal performance on heavy soils but advantage on lighter soils.
"The loader can just roll on that without any trouble," Mr Evans said.
The machine has been contracted to DPIRD with the recognition that there would be a need for a third party to be trained to operate it if needed.