Pastoralists intensify war on wild dogs

By Brooke Littlewood
Updated December 14 2021 - 4:01am, first published December 9 2021 - 10:00pm
The Central Wheatbelt Biosecurity Association laid 13,300 baits across the region through ground and aerial baiting and 24,000 dried meat baits were made by the group to be used by landholders.

WA's war against wild dogs has intensified in recent years, with farmers on the frontline fighting back in order to protect their livestock.

According to the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) wild dogs are estimated to cost the State's livestock sector $25 million annually.

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Additionally, their threat is a major deterrent to restocking of livestock enterprises and associated regional development opportunities, such as transport and shearing services.

A range of innovative new approaches to management have been tested in areas across WA.

This has included ceres tag technology, candid pest injectors with novel odours including liver treats, dried meat, synthetic fermented egg, vanilla essence, horse hooves, animal fat and fish oil, squakers and howlers.

Farm Weekly journalist Brooke Littlewood spoke to some WA farmers and biosecurity groups about wild dog numbers in their areas and what control techniques they found to be most effective.

Daniel Cousens - Meekatharra

A MEEKATHARRA pastoralist has given up counting the number of wild dogs sighted and trapped on his 149,000 hectare property.

"I stopped at 450 dogs," said Hillview station owner Darren Cousens.

"We are on the north eastern corner of the Murchison region vermin cell, so every time there is a problem with the fence we are one of the first stations to be impacted."

In an attempt to control the problem and protect his livestock - including 600 Santa Gertrudis and Droughtmaster-Shorthorn breeders - Mr Cousens joined forces with the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) to trial new control techniques.

He also uses a dogger monthly, supplied through the Meekatharra Rangeland Biosecurity Group, runs 30 of his own traps and is involved in the annual southern rangelands community baiting program.

So of those, what method has Mr Cousens found to be most effective?

Over the past nine years, only seven dogs have ever been shot at his property and only one has ever been baited.

The rest have been caught using trapping.

"I think the problem with wild dog management is we are still working with 100-year-old technology," Mr Cousens said.

"There is nothing new in the system, for example the candid pest injectors have produced mixed results with bungarras pulling them out of the ground."

Candid pest injectors are a spring-activated baiting device which deploy a 1080 capsule directly into the mouth of a wild dog or fox, as it pulls the bait placed on the head of the injector.

Dried meat is used to cover the lure holder containing the capsule.

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Mr Cousens said the injectors were modified using DPIRD scientist Tracey Kreplins' research.

"Anchors were welded to the bottom of the injectors and were drilled into the ground using hammer drills," he said.

"We have had to adapt and in most situations you do end up going back to the trap in the ground."

Mr Cousens has been able to track movement of grazing cattle through a ceres tag trial, which is a joint project with the Rangelands NRM WA and run through the Federal Government's Smart Farms Small Grants.

The trial uses a solar-powered smart ear tag to capture information in real time.

About six tags were used on Mr Cousens' cattle over the course of three months until the start of mustering.

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"We overlaid ceres tagging onto our satellite mapping," he said.

"We are also involved in a project with Tracey Kreplins, which monitors the interaction between wild dogs and cattles through collaring dogs and tagging cattle."

Smart tags are fitted with accelerometers, which send Mr Cousens an alert when one of his cattle has walked over 16 kilometres and is "overactive".

Additionally, camera traps have been used at Hillview and other stations in the same biosecurity region, as part of a project with Murdoch University.

These traps are aimed at small reptiles and marsupials.

"Camera traps have been set-up pointing down some of my mill roads," Mr Cousens said.

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"Then further into the bush some mesh has been dug into the ground.

"There is also a camera that sits vertically, so it works as a funnel to channel the invertebrates, small mammals and bungarras.

"The station above me is outside the Murchison vermin proof fence, so the camera project works between the two of us in gauging dog numbers and what they survive on."

Traps have been in place across 10 sites for 12 months.

Mr Cousens found one of the issues of the project was that cameras were only serviced every three months.

This meant data was not received instantaneously and was often outdated.

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"Sometimes there can be a four-month time lag by the time all the cameras have been checked,'' he said.

"A dog could have been at a camera the day it was serviced and new batteries were put in.

"I hit any areas where dogs have been sighted pretty hard with baiting and trapping.

"But nine times out of 10, I have already seen dog prints or have caught three or four dogs in those areas."

Mr Cousens found a fluctuation in dog numbers with a low period for six to seven weeks, before a sudden influx.

Whether this comes down to wild dogs finding their way through the vermin proof cell, a weather event or kangaroo numbers - he does not know.

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For example, in recent runs only one to two dogs have been caught by the dogger.

Whereas earlier this year, they were recording 10 to 12 dogs per run.

Outside of the areas the dogger works in, Mr Cousens targets sites where fresh dog tracks or scat have been sighted.

"I come back with a freezer full of meat, I inject it up and I go out and throw some fresh bait out," he said.

"Can I prove it is effective?

"Not really, but it is another tool."

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Mr Cousens gave credit to those who had been in the area for a long time and started the Murchison vermin proof fence project.

He said the biggest problem was the area was "probably behind the eight ball" and eradication inside the area was going to be a "huge effort".

"You still have gates left open, fences going down or a cyclone event that comes through and washed a couple of kilometres of fence down.

"I just hope the research gives us another tool to carry on the fight."

Edah station - Angus Nichols

WILD dog attacks left Edah station sheep producer Angus Nichols with no choice but to fully destock.

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Within two years, the station's lamb survival rate had plummeted to just 20 per cent and running sheep was not viable.

"It was horrendous," Mr Nichols said.

"There was no point in trying to run sheep when you are in drought and with a wild dog problem."

Mr Nichols and his brother took over Edah station, east of Yalgoo, six years ago and introduced 1000 Merino sheep including 500 ewes in lamb.

The 100,000 hectare property had always been run as a sheep station, but had been fully destocked for about five years.

"We tried to get up to speed as quickly as we could with baiting, trapping and shooting wild dogs," he said.

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"But there was no chance we were going to be able to eradicate them in the short-term.

"That led us to believe building a fence could be the best option."

Mr Nichols teamed up with three other pastoral leases - Murrum, Munbinia and Boogardie - to build the Murchison Hub Cell fence, which sits within the boundaries of the Murchison Regional Vermin fence.

The cell covers about 240,000ha, of which 25,000ha is Mr Nichols' original cell.

"About a third of Edah is covered by the original cell and now we have two thirds enclosed," he said.

"The hub cell encloses between 40 and 100pc of the other three stations.

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"We never expected the fence would be completely dog-proof and we know we are going to have to keep fighting them."

Mr Nichols said that apart from one dog, which had managed to get its way through an incomplete part of the fence, he had not seen any other incursion, but he said that didn't mean they weren't about.

"We often think we have got rid of them and then we see some tracks six months later," he said.

"It certainly does look like an effective control, as long as you keep on top of it.

"I am confident because the area isn't huge and everyone inside the cell is onto controlling them.

"There is no way they are going to breed within the cell and move out from there."

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Mr Nichols believes subdividing and creating smaller and controllable areas within the Murchison Regional Vermin Cell should help stop the movement of dogs inside.

He has also been working with DPIRD to set up camera traps and collect data as to where dogs are, how they move and what baits or traps are effective.

"I think traps will always be a part of it, but you do tend to get a bit of by-catch with them," Mr Nichols said.

"The fence is definitely a major factor, but must include other control methods we use inside the cell.

"It has also significantly reduced the number of kangaroos and goats moving through the property, which is a benefit to the landscape."

He added that ideally there would be a small population of kangaroos within the cell, however, there were problems with pastoralism and permanent waters.

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"Before pastoralism, 'roos were migratory because the water would dry up here and they would move on.

"With permanent waters, numbers build up to more than the country can carry and then the vegetation doesn't have a chance to get away because it is constantly being eaten."

A good season teamed with regeneration in the southern cell has allowed Mr Nichols to start planning to restock next year.

He said carbon credits had provided an income and allowed the luxury of not having to push country to restock.

"We still have an income with the money from the carbon, so that allows a conservative restocking program to be used," he said.

"Stock are an important part of the regeneration process.

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"It's necessary to have forage grazed - it just has to be in a controlled manner instead of uncontrolled as it has been in the past."

Chris Patmore - Eneabba

Eneabba sheep farmer Chris Patmore.

ENEABBA sheep farmer Chris Patmore knows all too well the brutal impact wild dogs can have on livestock.

Mr Patmore's worst year was at one of his Perenjori properties in 2018, when he lost 130 sheep to wild dog attacks and sold the survivors for $210 each.

"I've seen dogs run round and round in circles outside a mob of 600 sheep," Mr Patmore said.

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"Every now and then they would launch in, grab one, tear it up, let it go and then run around again and have another go, just for the hell of it."

Mr Patmore chairs the Central Wheatbelt Biosecurity Association (CWBA) and is a board member on the Midlands Biosecurity Group in a bid to help control wild dog numbers in the areas in which he farms.

The CWBA has reported a continued downward trend (92pc) in stock losses over the past four years.

But despite being on top of the problem, Mr Patmore said farmers could not become complacent.

"There is still a very low level of stock attacks, but we have to keep on top of it with the three licensed pest management technicians (LPMTs) we have employed," he said.

"As soon as we get complacent, the dogs will take off again.

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"They are mainly found in localised areas, travelling a long way overnight and back again.

"In 2020-2021, LPMTs in our area trapped or shot 25 wild dogs with anywhere between 22 and 113 traps in the ground each, at any one time."

A further 13,300 baits were laid across the region through ground and aerial baiting and 24,000 dried meat baits were made by the group to be used by landholders free of charge in co-ordinated community baiting programs in September 2020 and April this year.

A total of 35 stock losses/attacks were reported to the CWBA during this period - a 73pc decrease to the previous year.

Key hotspots remained in the area's region on agricultural land adjacent to the State Barrier Fence.

Mr Patmore said inside the State Barrier Fence wild dogs were "much more under control".

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"We measure our success by the number of stock attacks, not the number of dogs killed," he said.

"To have such a huge reduction is a good result for any group."

It is anticipated the 600 kilometre Esperance part of the fence should be finished in the next two to three years.

Goldfields Nullbarbor Rangelands Biosecurity Association

WITH 109 pastoral properties across one million square kilometres, wild dog numbers have remained consistent in the Goldfields Nullarbor region.

Goldfields Nullbarbor Rangelands Biosecurity Association (GNRBA) chief executive officer Michelle Donaldson said as the area was on "the wrong side of the State Barrier Fence'' it was a constant battle.

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"It is very seasonal," Ms Donaldson said.

"Sometimes we get on top of numbers and other times we don't."

Pastoralists use a variety of methods including baiting, shooting and trapping, while also engaging with LPMTs - or doggers - to find different approaches.

Ms Donaldson said all of GNRBA's Goldfields members were out of small stock and those in the Nullarbor were dog fenced.

She said without a fence there was no option to start running small stock.

"Fences do work, but it is big country out here and there are a lot of miles to travel,'' she said.

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"You can do a lap and everything is good and then it's not.

"It is a huge expense and it is a lot of time, but the rewards for running small stock if you do have a fence are obviously very good with the market the way it is these days.

"It would be nice to have a plan for us in this exposed country in the WA Wild Dog Action Plan - hopefully this is something we can work on down the track."

When it comes to what method people had found most effective, Ms Donaldson said trapping alongside seasonal baiting proved the winning combination.

"As I think most people would be aware, baiting on its own is not the silver bullet," she said.

"Trapping is very specific, it is very time consuming and therefore is quite costly.

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"But when you are dealing with a rogue dog or even just a dog in an area, which you notice evidence of even after baiting, it is really the way to go."

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