Remember when you used to be able to go bush with your dog? Baits have killed so many domestic dogs after years of baiting campaigns that it is not just travellers, but many pastoralists have given up having working dogs – especially over the last decade in our neck of the Rangelands when baiting in the Midwest of WA has become the go-to cheapest solution to the problems facing sheep producers. It is horrible death to witness – it has made it into the literary lexicon of Australia – remember Robyn Davidson’s wonderful book TRACKS from 1978, when her dog, Diggity takes a bait.)
Part of the whole dog problem has its roots in economic and social change. When the bottom last fell out of the wool market in early 1990s, people across the Rangeland (remember we are talking about a huge proportion of Australia and WA geographically) got out of sheep in a hurry and dropped the ball in terms of keeping an eye on canine numbers. When that happened people lost the incentive to keep dog and fox numbers down and populations built up. And now of course, wool and lamb meat is on the up and up - but many pastoralists are struggling to find their feet in a world where the land has lost much of its fertility and they lack the capital and labour to run viable businesses.
The upshot of the general attitude to free-ranging dogs is that if you want to take your dog inland, you will need to muzzle them. Some people who spend a lot of time in the bush not only use a muzzle, but place fly-wire in the end – a dog need only lick a bait, or lick a paw that has trodden on a bait - to die. Baits can also be picked up and dropped by crows and other birds, so in theory, nowhere is safe.
The arguments for and against baiting vary depending on which zone you are operating from. If conservation - minded, then you will be naming the free-ranging dogs of the Rangelands, dingoes - as in canus lupus dingo, stressing their qualities as apex predators and their long residence in this land.
If you are involved in livestock production you will probably prefer the term ‘wild dog’ ––which takes a bit of the gloss off the image of the dingo as a noble, charismatic and valued national icon – as it is designed to do.
Figures have recently been revised, they now think the dingo arrived with Asian seafarers, , between 3,500-5,000 years ago. In terms of the history of Australia, the dogs became a problem for animal growers within a few decades of colonisation. In the Southern Rangelands, the area of Midwest WA where I live, the dogs have been a business model changing problem since the 1990s when they started to stream onto station land down from inland, deep in the desert.
I remember a discussion I had with Helen Broad, a woman who lived on mulga country most of her married life. Here is what she said about a certain day on Milly Milly Station in the north east Murchison: I was in the bush, we were mustering, when I saw a mother dingo walking calm as you like down the middle of the sandy creek followed by a string of puppies. That was 1994 and looking back, it was the beginning of the end’.
Emma Foulkes-Taylor from Yuin Station – a few hundred kilometres east and north of Geraldton, says it was 2009 when their fortunes changed. Overnight their lambing numbers dropped 40% with the arrival of the dog. Luckily the Yuin mob had got in early with the small cell idea – initially driven to fence off areas of the Greenough River for conservation reasons, they had the start of a dog free zones– so they have been able to keep a sheep business going to the present day when both wool and meat prices are much more sustainable for producers.
The Jones of Murrum and Boolardy Station, just out of Mt Magnet are currently engaged in working with neighbours to construct fences that will keep out grazing animals like roos and goats, as well as the wild dogs – carving big cell paddocks out of enormous areas of land – coming off the already established miles of state barrier fencing to make the whole thing, if not cheap, at least value adding to the millions already spent. Their hope is that this might allow them to keep the meat and wool industry alive in their corner of the Southern Rangelands.
John Jones talks with humour about the dingo. He refers to them disparagingly as Indian camp dogs -- pushing them off their pedestal as Australian national icons. His story is that a mob of ill-bred mongrels made their way over to this part of the world and should be given the status of pests rather than lauded as legenday charismatic, noble beasts.
According to geneticists there is some difference between states in the wild dog/slash/dingo story to do with the fact that after the Northern Territory, WA has the most genetically pure dingoes – something that excites the geneticists and backs conservation-minded thinkers….but as over 80% is considered genetically pure, speaking myself from the perspective of what could be called an invasive species, I am not sure what to do with this information.
In my time at Edah Station, east of Yalgoo, I saw a corpse of a dog that a station bloke had shot – to my eyes it was a dingo. But the pastoralist took the time to show me that it had an unusual shaped jaw, longer than a dingoes. He told me he had once got some DNA tests done on a dog he had trapped and received information that they were 94% dingo. That leaves 6% mutt-mutt. I am not sure what this proves – as humans are apparently only 1% off being great apes and not that far off being cucumbers….perhaps the genetic story is not the one we need to be looking at when we are trying to make judgements on dogs in the Rangelands. For the pastoralist, this 6% was a licence to kill…for someone else it indicates rare genetic purity.
Being a bit of a permaculturist at heart I think all things that survive deserve the life they have and genetic purity has unpleasant ramifications. Lets look at it from the human perspective - I am a 100% self-described Western Australian – but I am pretty sure my DNA would not help my case. My sense is that Canus Schmanush – a dog is a dog is a dog.
A better way of looking at this might be through the lens of behaviour. Some free-ranging dogs are more solitary than others, some like to be part of a pack – but pack structure is, apparently, a fluid and changing thing. Pastoralists – and most are pretty set on killing dogs whatever you call them because they demonstrably eat, upset and harass their stock- have stories that dingoes only have one litter a year and hybrids will have many litters a year, but – is this true? My convictions have been shaken in conversation with different people, including researchers, and again, from stories I have heard it seems that some dogs, whatever their genetic make-up are stone-cold killers, while others are capable of sharing the land with pastoralists and not doing too much damage.
I have learned to look at plants through the lens of behaviour– or, function perhaps is the better word for something as rooted as a plant. It doesn’t matter where the plant comes from – what matters is what function it performs in the landscape. This has been the permaculturalists’ argument for years, and is also the view of Peter Andrews, the genius hydrologist who is rewriting the way we are looking at land restoration techniques across Australia.
What is clear, and known to most dog lovers, is that dogs are opportunistic eaters. Everyone seems agreed that for free ranging Rangeland canines, the fave food is kangaroo, closely followed by goat: sheep are not their first choice. But they will essentially eat what is easiest. Meaning that after a good rain when frogs and insects abound, they eat frogs and insects. Having seen the size of moths that crawl out of the ground after a good soaking in Chapman Valley just out of Geraldton I can imagine that a belly full of fatty moths would satisfy the appetite of any kind of canus - familiarus or anyotherarus.
Dogs in the desert are the apex predators, and you haven’t been reading your Barbara Kingsolver novels if you don’t understand that apex predators are a natural and essential part of the ecosystem. Dogs eat anything, lizards, seeds, fruits, grass, echidnas – fresh and alive. But you would think that apex hunters like to eat other animals and would see the station sheep as pretty poor game. Older dogs it seems to be generally agreed are far too canny to fall for a bait, and generally can sniff out and avoid even the most cleverly laid trap. But – and here is why we seem to have an on-going decades long interest in baiting - you might get the odd puppy.
The chosen bait poison, 1080 is…and I quote…’ a naturally occurring odourless compound which occurs in approximately 30 species of native Australian plants –1080 is bio-degradable and although manufactured, it retains all of its natural characteristics including diluting to nothing in water, being consumed and broken down by bacteria and fungi into harmless compounds.” Thus says the literature. But is it odourless? How do we know? As far as I know this has not been scientifically proven – we just know we can’t smell it and nobody has spent the time and money needed to run the trials that tests a dog’s far superior sniffing talents. In the old days they used strychnine – and I have been told this also caused a violent, but much quicker death, than 1080 – but it is considered too dangerous for farmers and station folk to handle.
It is possible to go on a ‘bait run’ and see large bungarras – large monitor lizards - waddling calmly in the tyre tracks helping themselves to horsemeat laced with 1080 – I have witnessed this myself while sitting in the passenger seat throwing the baits out the window when we had to back-track for some reason. It was both a funny and demoralising sight as you can imagine. I should say that native animals are immune to 1080 as it is a naturally occurring substance in the environment, and this includes the other main bait eaters: crows, eagles etc.
Previous to the bait run, local Station people had spent a long day with sharp knives at a ‘cut up day’ at Melangata Station inland from Yalgoo, slicing and dicing large lumps of meat, injecting poison and spreading the pieces on racks to harden up. Hard labour with lots of diesel burned as the station folk then hopped in their utes trying to cover all known dog hangouts over huge areas of station land.
As a trainee pastoralist I found it all a bit dispiriting – especially as the jury seems to be out on whether baiting is really a cost-effective way of dealing with the problem. But I suppose that I am not convinced that the ‘problem’, as currently defined, is the problem we should be engaging with. It is like looking at weeds on agricultural land – they are a symptom, not a cause and maybe it would be better to take a step back and look at a bigger story. But we are creatures of habit and once something becomes established practice, money changes hands, routines are established, jobs and money are involved, structures like bio-security organisations are set up and there is enough money and time invested in sustaining the whole bait industry – regardless of its effectiveness.
I spoke to Tracy Kreplin, research scientist currently working with the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development. I’ll admit I was looking for some data that could back my own opinions that baiting is the poorest of the poor cousin in the whole save-the-rangeland-sheep-industry program currently on offer – the other aspects include barrier fences, cell grazing and the hiring of doggers..
I must admit that any fact-based data that has snuck into this story comes via a long and interesting conversation I had with Tracy as she spoke to me from her office in Northam. She kindly sent me a research paper based on work done on two stations in the Southern Rangelands the gist of which found that from 900 baits laid, 300 odd were taken, but mostly by lizards and crows etc and the wild dog uptake was just over 1%.
The baits were laid and cameras monitored animal movement determining that there was plenty of wild dog action – just not much take up of the baits. Of the four baits out of 900 that that were taken by dogs – three of these were impregnated with a fish oil lure and the dogs were, as suspected, young..
What I get from this is that a whole lot of baiting is going on – to not much affect – which appeals to my convictions. But the researchers have determined that there might be a lot more that could be done to make the baits more effective. For instance, the sight of dogs seeing but not taking the baits indicates that this might be a learned aversion. They are smart animals and have become used to the baits because the same meat has been used for many years.
Tracy’s opinion is that a lot could be done to overcome this problem by trialling different meats and adding tasty lures. Also, she thinks that the pastoralists could change their tactics by storing the baits and using them at strategically targeted time, For instance, baits quickly lose their effectiveness if they get rained on and there are prime times to lay baits, when dogs are on the move ie when they are looking for mates or when pups are venturing out on their own. In a word, baits could be employed in a more nuanced way. Some station owners are also trying their own methods – one canny bloke nails his baits up on tree trunks which he claims is an effective way of stopping the non-target native species from eating them.
One thing baits have done has been to take out the foxes very effectively – they are voracious and careless eaters and can easily be knocked out by baits. Perhaps the only good thing about dog baiting from my perspective as a new pastoralist with not much invested in a sheep business, was that I could free-range a little bunch of chooks , refugees from the city, who lived truly wonderful lives – once they got over the shock of the vastness of their new backyard they were happy campers, free ranging around in the creek near the homestead.
The doggers are an interesting mob. If more State and individual money was directed to hiring a web of doggers it would possibly make an impact on dog numbers and definitely have positive flow-on effects – like more eyes and ears on remote zones. Doggers save time and money for pastoralists by keeping an eye on what is happening in far-flung corners of the station and checking that windmills and fences are in working order – and they tell great stories around the fire at night. Dogs are tricky they will tell you – but they are curious. First establish where the dogs do their rounds. Then attract their attention – by doing something like hanging an old CD in a tree – dogs are attracted to shiny things out of the ordinary.
A dogger will often carry a fresh supplies of urine or pooh from a dog on heat to lay an enticing scent down and will spend time perfecting the burying of a trap and the hiding of human traces at the point where they are sure the dog will walk. This is a specialised job for loners, those with advanced bushskills – but labour is expensive so there is not much energy for this as a solution.
ROD AND THE HOLISTIC APPROACH TO DOG CONTROL
Rod Butler from Gimlet Ridge Farm just out of Morawa – border country between farming and pastoral land – has been introducing regenerative agricultural principles on his land for many years. This involves both planting and allowing for multi-species including perennials, introducing shorter and more intense rotational grazing programs for his sheep and generally trying a more nature-based approach to farming .
Over the years, factors such as increased bio-diversity, better soil microbiome and green cover left on his paddocks over the hot months has encouraged a big growth in the numbers and diversity of insects and lizards and other small critters. What Rod has noticed is that while his neighbours are suffering debilitating stock losses to dogs, his sheep remain relatively untouched. Rod’s theory is that the dogs – as opportunistic hunters – use his land for the easy tucker supplied by insects and small creatures and snack on sheep elsewhere……but this is only part of Rod’s farming story. It also involves input from local indigenous people and Allan Savory – the creator of Holistic Management - principles that are having a global influence in land, animal and human management.
Rod works intensively with his sheep – moving them across paddocks using pressure/ release techniques, encouraging them to move as a mob, both instituting and breaking patterns of feeding - and above all, monitoring their behaviour closely so he can direct their energies effectively to get the outcomes he wants.
Trust is a word he uses when talking about the relationship he is cultivating with his sheep – he is careful to encourage the bond between ewes and their lambs –some of his ewes range from 5-11 years old – unheard of ages in sheep circles – but he keeps them because they are incredible mothers; they know the land, they know how to feed themselves on natural pasture and how to pass on this knowledge to the mob. He has learnt to work with this energy.
Another word Rod likes is complexity. He works holistically – wild dogs are part of the picture and he is not interested in putting big energy into cutting out parts of the picture - be they weeds or dogs – he is working with patterns and systems to find out how to manage all that is - to steer the ship that is his farm in a way that recognises and works in with the complexity of natural and human systems.
What all agree - is that baiting has to be part of a broader strategy. Guardian animals like marema sheep dogs and alpacas have had some success, particularly in agricultural regions. Ideas introduced under the general term of stress-free stockmanship that, among other things, encourages animals to mob up, can be effective. Cell fencing has a part to play for those with the money, labour and drive required to trial this method in the Rangelands – there will be a lot to learn from the stations going down this path. Not least in the area of erosion control. Henry from Boolardie Station is becoming a maestro with earth moving equipment, he is on a mission working out how to set up roads and fences on any landscape so as to ensure that they don’t become tomorrow’s creek.
And the boffins! Well you can imagine they are rejoicing. If grazing numbers can be controlled and animals moved across paddocks in a timely way that allows the land to recover. If permanent water sources are dealt with differently and perennial grasses encouraged to return, rainwater will stay in the soil, eroded zones will start to heal etc – the theories indicate that stocking rates can be doubled, even tripled while the land self heals. But, as my gran might have said, there is many a slip twixt cup and lip – and when, in history, did an exclusion wall work? And I mean work for all life – not just for those controlling the wall. And if this turns out to be a ‘WHAT did the Romans ever do for us? kind of question please tell me. I have a lot of respect for those pastoralists still persevering against the odds by trying to run sheep and make a living on the country they love.
When John from Murrum isn’t riffing on Indian camp dogs, he’s got a bit of a thing about eagles. Reckons he wants to box some up and send them over to rural Victoria where he heard somewhere that they had run out of eagles.
No-one likes to talk about eagles in the Rangelands, but they take an extraordinary amount of young lambs. I thought it a Rangeland myth, but anecdotally, eagles take lambs, and around lambing season can be seen in flocks of up to 40 to a paddock. These are staggering numbers. Roads and road-users have created lots of roadkill, long establishment of permanent water and other inducements have created huge imbalances in natural systems across our whole rangeland.
At Wooleen Station in the Murchison they don’t bait for dogs. The reason being they need predators to keep the roo numbers down, and on the move, to allow the perennial grasses to get a foothold in the vast paddocks as they pursue their dream of restoring fertility to what was one of the biggest and richest of the early pastoral leases. I saw a video of station owners Dave and Francis walking over a field of native perennials and was inspired – for the return of the kangaroo grass, sure – but the bit I loved was seeing their dogs running around beside them, the return of the station pet as a free-ranging creature, reclaiming their proper place within the pastoral story…
And if there is a moral to this story – it is about the big picture. Complex systems have complex problems. And when the symptoms are revealing that things are wildly out of balance, it requires subtler thinking, bigger thinking, than the solutions on offer at the moment.
It is time to give real voice to the paradigm shift that I have been tracking in my meandering exploration of soil and human health. Let’s pay heed to the people who are studying on restoring balance across the whole of the landscape, for the benefit of all life, rather than giving most of the airtime to those still messing around in the areas of exclusion and destruction.