Before collaborative community-based, landscape scale control strategies
- Wild dog impacts were causing some landholders emotional and economic distress.
- Playing the ‘blame game’ often distracted landholders from finding effective solutions.
- Knowledge was limited of the suite of control methods available and how to use them strategically and effectively.
- Relationships between landholders, public land managers and Victorian wild dog program staff improved significantly with increased collaboration and communication resulting from a more localised approach to wild dog management.
- Landholder resilience and emotional wellbeing improved from understanding how to minimise wild dog impacts using a range of tools and control options.
- Landholders understood and accepted they had to take ownership of the problem and be part of the solution.
Wild dogs have been a part of the Australian landscape for about 5000 years, however, farmers have found it difficult to manage the devastating emotional and economic impacts these animals can have on livestock and livelihoods.
Consequently, the management of wild dogs has been a contentious and emotive issue, particularly in the state’s hot spots of East Gippsland and North East Victoria.
In these regions, during 2006-2010 in particular, there were increased public outcries of frustration at what some farmers saw as a systemic failure of governments and the community to support them in control strategies.
Invasive Animals CRC (IACRC) National Wild Dog Facilitator Greg Mifsud, supported by the Victorian Government and Australian Wool Innovation, has spearheaded a decade-long campaign to improve the balance between livestock industries, biodiversity and wild dogs.
These efforts, now underpinned by the National Wild Dog Action Plan, established strategic, community-based control programs that have helped landholders help themselves.
“When we started this process, it was rough,” Greg said. “Landholders were angry and frustrated. Control efforts weren’t working and everyone seemed to be shifting the blame.
“The planning approach used by the Victorian Government at the time was regionally based and producers couldn’t see how the program was relevant to their smaller, often isolated communities.
“They lost faith in the process, didn’t feel they were being heard and were still losing sheep. Victorians had become reliant on reactive trapping and didn’t use all the tools available such as baiting and exclusion fencing.”
It wasn’t until Greg started working with the Victorian Government to establish local community planning groups that producers’ attitudes to wild dog management began to change.
“Landholders’ concerns were being heard and exposure to nil tenure-based approaches to wild dog management meant everyone had to be involved,” he said. “They gained additional confidence in the process as the Victorian Government implemented positive changes to the program such as the inclusion of proactive baiting.” Greg said one of the hardest concepts for landholders to grasp was that wild dogs didn’t understand property boundaries or titles, they only saw pathways to food and habitat.
“It was a huge victory when landholders understood wild dog control efforts had to be both strategic and coordinated across all tenures to achieve the best outcomes and, that by acting alone, no one could ever win,” he said.
At the coalface
Ian ‘Bluey’ Campbell is a wild dog controller with the Victorian Government Wild Dog Management Program in the Upper Murray, Granya and Sandy Creek districts in North East Victoria.
Before the introduction of local community group meetings and the use of additional tools such as baiting, Ian faced an enormous task of covering a large area and reacting to stock attacks rather than being able to proactively manage wild dogs before they started killing.
“At that time, one or two of us were looking after a big area and I was catching over 100 dogs a year,” he said.
Ongoing stock attacks saw Bluey having to deal with frustrated landholders who saw him as the face of a government agency, that they believed, was not doing enough to manage the problem.
Given these challenges, Bluey found it difficult to build relationships with landholders and gain their support for his control activities.
Also, the mountainous terrain and the travel times involved in his extensive patrol area, often meant he couldn’t respond to stock attacks as quickly as land holders expected.
“Relationships between wild dog controllers and landholders were often strained. We were expected to be at everyone’s beck and call and we simply couldn’t be everywhere at once,” he said.
Fortunately for Bluey, attitudes have since changed with the implementation of the Victorian and National Wild Dog Action Plans, and to manage wild dogs he now works closely with farmers, other landholders and local community wild dog control groups.
Bluey also undertakes proactive baiting programs in the 3km livestock protection zone along private-public land boundaries and applies his wild dog trapping skills to respond to stock attacks.
Landholders are now undertaking co-ordinated baiting programs on their own properties in conjunction with the Victorian Government program leaving Bluey, and other wild dog controllers, more time and resources to focus on the livestock protection zone.
However, Bluey and his colleagues are still required to use their trapping skills to control dogs that are threatening or attacking livestock on private property.
“I used to catch more than 100 dogs a year but these days I catch as few as 25 while still contributing to the baiting program that is helping keep wild dog numbers and stock attacks under control,” he said.
Grassroots changes have made a difference
The Victorian Government’s Wild Dog Action Plan (2013) recognised the need to strengthen the co-ordination of wild dog management in Victoria and to reduce the negative impacts of wild dogs.
To achieve this, all land managers (private and government) had to work together and use all available management approaches including proactive poison baiting, exclusion fencing and implementation of good animal husbandry, along with reactive measures such as trapping and shooting.
According to former State Wild Dog Control Program Manager Andrew Crocos, the groundswell for change began with the use of community leaders to champion and inform producers of best practice wild dog control methods and how to use several methods simultaneously.
“The change in attitude was further bolstered by the formation of the Australian Wool Innovation-funded wild dog control groups, which proved an informal, but highly successful, mechanism that gave a lifeline to farmers looking for technical and emotional support,” he said.
Andrew said there was a significant cultural change within government and grassroots consultation and collaboration were seen as vital to the program’s success.
“Government agency staff would attend community-based meetings with large maps and ask stakeholders to draw where stock attacks had occurred and draw on local knowledge to plan the most effective control strategies,” he said.
From losing 1500 sheep a year to losing none
Fraser Barry, a producer at Bindi, near Swifts Creek, still remembers the days when he would wake up and head out with his rifle each morning to control wild dogs and doing it all again each evening.
At its worst, he said wild dogs were killing 1500 of his 10,000 sheep each year, making it impossible for him to have an optimistic long-term outlook.
“It was soul destroying, because every day I was dealing with death and destruction,” he said. “The situation felt hopeless – even though I was shooting dogs I wasn’t getting ahead. We couldn’t breed enough sheep to sustain our numbers, financially we were going backwards.
“I was exhausted, we got no sleep and our home became a really stressful environment. It was horrendous.”
Fraser knew the emotional and financial impacts these sheep losses were having on his family meant something had to change.
“We were expecting the government to do something about it but then it was like a light bulb switched on,” he said.
“Finally, I understood that we had to take responsibility and do something about it.”
Fraser joined the Gippsland Wild Dog Management Group which gave him an insight into wild dog control across the state. However, the catalyst for change locally didn’t occur until he attended a meeting of the National Wild Dog Management Advisory Group in 2010 where he learnt how wild dog control was being delivered in other states.
“We took up baiting, and, even though we couldn’t afford it, we electrified fences on some of our country.”
Fraser said this created a physical boundary which gave him an advantage he could work from.
“Before we adopted these other control strategies, we could be working on one side of the hill and dogs would be killing on the other and we wouldn’t know,” he said.
The national approach to management and best practice wild dog control that had been promoted by the National Wild Dog Facilitator, Greg Mifsud and the Victorian Government since 2009 started to gain traction with landholders, public land managers and wild dog controllers.
They began to realise the benefits of a collaborative, nil-tenure approach and, also, how much more effective using a suite of control tools (shooting, baiting, trapping and exclusion fencing) could be.
In 2013, these proven principles were enshrined in the Victorian Action Plan for Managing Wild Dogs and nationally in 2014 by the National Wild Dog Action Plan which now underpins every state and territory-based wild dog management strategy or action plan.
Fraser credits the uptake of the nil-tenure, community-based approach to wild dog control as the catalyst for turning his life and farm business around.
Today, thanks to his community’s ongoing commitment to principles of the Victorian and National Wild Dog Action plans, Fraser rarely loses sheep to wild dogs.
Building trust between partners
Reflecting on his time as a Community Engagement Officer in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, Andy Wernert said the impacts of wild dogs were brutal and disturbing for landholders.
“Farmers reported wild dogs were working in packs often killing livestock for sport and that for every sheep killed, another three or four were being severely maimed,” he said.
Andy’s first challenge was to convince landholders that trapping was not enough to bring wild dog numbers and stock attacks under control. Armed with the best practice information provided by the Invasive Animals CRC and a national approach, he began bringing all parties to the table through the local wild dog management planning meetings. Field days were held to educate landholders on wild dog ecology and implementation of control tools to bring wild dog numbers under control.
“It wasn’t easy, but gradually everyone put their frustrations on the table and we shifted to a mindset that it was a shared problem,” he said. “Building trust between partners was a critical element in the approach to working as one.
“Effective control had to be managed as a team rather than as an individual even when people didn’t think they had wild dogs on their land.”
Andy said those communities taking a proactive approach were the first to see livestock attacks stop.
This shift in community perception was reflected in the local media, as newspapers that had been very critical of the government’s management of the problem began to engage with the agency, go out into the field with them and write stories that reflected how the problem was being brought under control.
“If wild dog numbers had not been brought under control the problem would have only become worse and this could have pushed farmers out of the sheep industry,” he said.