Can Australia afford the dingo fence?

18 05 2012

I wrote this last night with Euan Ritchie of Deakin University in response to some pretty shoddy journalism that misrepresented my comments (and Euan’s work). Our article appeared first in The Conversation this morning (see original article).

We feel we have to set the record straight after some of our (Bradshaw’s) comments were taken grossly out of context, or not considered at all (Ritchie’s). A bubbling kerfuffle in the media over the last week compels us to establish some facts about dingoes in Australia, and more importantly, about how we as a nation choose to manage them.

A small article in the News Ltd. Adelaide Advertiser appeared on 11 May in which one of us (Bradshaw) was quoted as advocating the removal of the dingo fence because it was not “cost effective” (sic). Despite nearly 20 minutes on the telephone explaining to the paper the complexities of feral animal management, the role of dingoes in suppressing feral predators, and the “costs” associated with biodiversity enhancement and feral control, there wasn’t a single mention of any of this background or justification.

Another News Ltd. article denouncing Ritchie’s work on the role of predators in Australian ecosystems appeared in The Weekly Times the day before, to which Ritchie responded in full.

So it’s damage control, and mainly because we want to state categorically that our opinion is ours alone, and not that of our respective universities, schools, institutes or even Biosecurity SA (which some have claimed or insinuated, falsely, that we represent). Biosecurity SA is responsible for, inter alia, the dingo fence in South Australia. Although our opinions differ on its role, we are deeply impressed, grateful and supportive of their work in defending us from biological problems.

It is probably surprising to most Australians that introduced species (and the mismanagement thereof) in this country have devastated many elements of our native ecosystems. With over 20 million pigs, 18 million cats, 7 million foxes, 2 million goats, 1 million camels, 300,000 swamp buffalo, 200,000 deer (from six species) and millions of rabbits, our native biodiversity has suffered immensely. Indeed, Australia has the worst record for mammal extinctions in the world, mainly due to foxes and cats.

Furthermore, pigs, camels, buffalo and goats have heavily damaged millions of square kilometres of outback Australia. Even in northern Australia, where deforestation has been relatively light compared to the south, native animals are on the decline in part from introduced species. And guess what? We are no closer to controlling them now than anytime in our past.

So why do we invest billions of dollars in feral animal control and the subsequent recovery plans for endangered wildlife using the same techniques for decades, when a more proactive and natural alternative exists? It’s a solution mired in controversy because it involves yet another “introduced” predator – the dingo.

The dingo has long evoked fear and loathing in the hearts of Australians. Ever since we learnt that it was introduced around 4000 years ago by Southeast Asian visitors to our northern shores, we have developed an irrational opinion that this sheep-killing, baby-stealing, thylacine- and devil-displacing feral from Asia is a menace that should be eradicated at all costs.

But when you look at the evidence, you are compelled to question that image. Despite some high-profile incidences of attacks on humans, they are perhaps one of the least-dangerous species to humans in Australia. The entirely coincidental disappearance of thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) and devils from mainland Australia when the dingo appeared also ignores that the climate was changing and Aboriginal populations began booming at the same time.

So, what did we do? We built a fence, of course! Over 5500 km long and possibly the world’s longest human-built structure, the dingo fence is a monument to predator xenophobia. Its role is controversial, because while it certainly has prevented an influx of a large number of dingoes into southern and eastern Australia, it has also seen a proliferation of competing native (kangaroos) and non-native (rabbits) herbivores where dingoes are absent or in low abundance.

While the roughly $10 million it costs each year to maintain the fence is lower than the cited $48 million per year pastoralists claim to lose to “wild dogs”, these costs don’t include the labour-intensive and expensive additional poisoning that accompanies the fencing. And poisoning is not the answer either. In addition to killing non-target native species, baiting dingoes might in fact result in increased dingo densities due to social breakdown of the pack, resulting in increasing attacks on stock, not to mention a higher likelihood of hybridisation with feral dogs. Baiting also leads to more juvenile dingoes. These less-efficient predators tend to target calves more than adult dingoes do.

And of course the “costs” also don’t include the unquantifiable costs to our biodiversity. How many millions per year do we spend on native species recovery, and how many billions are lost from depleted ecosystem services?

There’s also the issue of the fence’s effectiveness – today dingoes are penetrating farther and farther south due to camel damage to the fence itself, and other weaker areas where dingoes can penetrate.

It turns out that the dingo is in fact a sorely under-utilised weapon in our feral-animal arsenal. Pretty much everywhere we’ve looked across Australia, when dingoes are abundant, foxes and cats aren’t, and native marsupials are. It’s called the “mesopredator” effect, and highlights the important role of predators in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

There are other advantages to dingoes that might not seem obvious. Dingoes reduce herbivore densities and this can reduce the effects of climate change-induced drought by increasing available plant cover. Dingoes can also benefit graziers by providing more vegetation to produce stronger, healthier cattle that can resist attack (indeed, dingoes prefer more passive prey such as kangaroos).

Unfortunately, most pest management in Australia lacks an integrated approach. We remove foxes, and cats increase; we remove cats, and rabbits increase. We remove dingoes, and we have more herbivore competition problems. This inefficient hopping from one single-species crisis to the next is, we argue, a waste of money and time. It lacks a long-term vision.

We need to recognise that species interact along complex pathways, and so the entire system should be managed as a whole (indeed, integrated pest management is advocated in many areas by our own government biosecurity experts). Worldwide, the release of mesopredators after the persecution of higher-order predators is now demonstrating many adverse consequences for biodiversity and economics, from sharks, rays and scallops in the Gulf of Mexico, from lynx, foxes and hares in Finland, from coyotes, cats and birds in America, to our own dingo-cat-fox-marsupial problem.

So with too many herbivores, too many mesopredator foxes and cats, and costly management, why don’t we let the dingoes do the work for us? If we focus on ecological function, then dubious labels of good/bad or native/feral become irrelevant. The loss of mainland predators such as devils, thylacines and marsupial lions means that the dingo is our one last hope to restore some ecological balance to our country’s highly disrupted ecosystem. Indeed, the solution is readily available and staring us in the face, if only we had the courage to employ it.

It is interesting that the Weekly Times held a poll asking readers to vote “yes” or “no” to the reintroduction of devils and dingoes to manage pest species; just before the poll closed, nearly 80 % had said “yes”. Clearly, sectors of the Australian community are receptive, including many pastoralists.

Of course, stock losses will always remain a concern, because sheep and dingoes will never co-exist in harmony. However, advances in trialling guardian dogs show immense promise in this regard, even for remote and large stock populations. Indeed, guardian dogs have even been successful in Namibia to protect stock from leopards.

We should shift our investment in pest control: let’s help graziers trial new and more effective solutions. The process will be slow and guarded, but we should be focussing on long-term solutions, instead of costly, questionably effective and ecologically myopic single-species interventions. In light of these arguments, each Australian should ask the question: is the dingo fence worth it?

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

CJA Bradshaw & Euan Ritchie


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10 responses

22 07 2014
Of forests, fences and foxes: A South Australian reflection on George Monbiot’s “Feral” | Decarbonise SA

[…] can hardly brag. Our own bit of anti-trophic insanity is the dog-proof fence, an expensive exercise in keeping dingos out of vast parts of Australia. This is done, ostensibly, […]

16 04 2014
South Australia’s tattered environmental remains | ConservationBytes.com

[…] Australia has the world’s longest, contiguous human-made structure in the world – the ‘dog&#8217… […]

10 01 2014
Essential role of carnivores on the wane | ConservationBytes.com

[…] can even benefit the industry that persecutes them the most – pastoralism – by limiting the density of wild herbivores that compete for vegetation biomass eaten by commercial live…. They can also potentially soften the impact of climate change on other species by limiting the […]

29 11 2013
King for a day – what conservation policies would you make? | ConservationBytes.com

[…] I would remove the dingo and all other barrier fences. […]

26 10 2013
Helen Bergen

Thanks for the article. It’s always good to see science testing itself – as it too often does not do re ecology and wildlife.

Re the accepted assertion that dingoes are needed to predate kangaroos (I recognise this isn’t what your paper is specifically about)) to control Mac’ populations – has consideration been given to Banks’ paper re 73% mortality of joeys, with 50% by foxes? Further, given that commercial shooting quotas are between 15-40% of populations pa, yet population growth rate for the large kangaroos is about 3-8%, with up to minus 60% crashes during drought; do you have any concerns about further predation on roos by dingoes? I refer to the NSW Nomination of the 4 large macs as threatened – avail http://www.kangaroosatrisk.net that shows zone by one downward trendlines for all mac’ species.

Given the might of the kangaroo industry to control the public and scientific discourse about kangaroos requiring population control (thus justifying the commercial industry, often via the RIRDC whose research is commissioned by the KIAA with the explicit goal of promoting markets for the ‘product’); and that the same tightly networked kangaroo experts/consultants/academics (all having been contracted by/to the KIAA at some time) continue to refuse to enter into good faith testing of their assertions of abundance, do you think the same sort of reframing of common Australian assumptions re the kangaroo is needed?

I ask, because your research specifically testing the status quo about dingoes seems to me to be a similar swimming against the historical ‘might’ of ensconced views by all and sundry.

21 08 2013
Don’t blame it on the dingo | ConservationBytes.com

[…] dingoes have been persecuted because they prey on livestock. During the 1880s, 5614 km of ‘dingo fence’ was constructed to protect south-east Australia’s grazing rangelands from dingo incursions. […]

21 11 2012
Essential predators « ConservationBytes.com

[...] in myriad systems. We have written extensively on the mesopredator release concept applied to dingos, sharks and coyotes, but we haven’t really expanded on the broader role of predators in more [...]

1 11 2012
Toothed conflict « ConservationBytes.com

[...] conflict and the inevitable losers in that battle – the (non-human) predators. From dingos to sharks, predator xenophobia is just another way we weaken ecosystems and ultimately harm [...]

15 06 2012
The invader’s double edge « ConservationBytes.com

[...] challenges our views on invasive species (some would do well to heed his words when it comes to species like dingos). I mentioned in his last post that he had just recently submitted his PhD thesis, and now [...]

18 05 2012
Julie

Hi Corey So glad you noticed the response to the Weekly Times poll which showed that about 80% wanted the return of the devil &/or dingo. Thanks to a great response from Dingo CARE Network we feel in someway responsible for this great response. I have been keeping dingoes in my back yard for almost 40 years and it is great to now have so many scientists on our side, and speaking out in the media.

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