Let’s face it: Australia doesn’t have the best international reputation for good ecological management. We’ve been particularly loathsome in our protection of forests, we have an appalling record of mammal extinctions, we’re degenerate water wasters and carbon emitters, our country is overrun with feral animals and weeds, and we have a long-term love affair with archaic, deadly, cruel, counter-productive and xenophobic predator management. To top it all off, we have a government hell-bent on screwing our already screwed environment even more.
Still, we soldier on and try to fix the damages already done or convince people that archaic policies should be scrapped and redrawn. One such policy that I’ve written about extensively is the idiocy and cruelty of the dingo fence.
The ecological evidence that dingoes are good for Australian wildlife and that they pose less threat to livestock than purported by some evidence-less graziers is becoming too big to ignore any longer. Poisoning and fencing are not only counter-productive, they are cruel, ineffective and costly.
So just when ecologists thought that dingoes couldn’t get any cooler, out comes our latest paper demonstrating that letting dingoes do their thing results in a net profit for cattle graziers.
That’s right. Having more dingoes around your arid-country cattle station will actually end up giving you a higher profit margin, provided you don’t overstock (which you shouldn’t in the first place). How can this surprising phenomenon eventuate?
With even a modicum of basic ecological understanding – something sadly lacking from most of our politicians – it turns out to be rather intuitive. Using a series of inter-connected ecological and economic models, our postdoctoral fellow, Dr Thomas Prowse, led the study to demonstrate how complex ecological process can lead to counter-intuitive outcomes.
How does it work? Let’s examine the basics. Dingoes are predators, a fact on which we can all agree. They eat many different things and occasionally take out young livestock (lambs and calves). They also eat a lot of kangaroos, and in fact, seem to prefer them. In a typical cattle station setting in arid Australia, two herbivore groups (cattle & macropods) compete for the most limiting resource – grass. Thus, it stands to reason (and ecological scrutiny) that when there are fewer kangaroos around, there is more grass for cattle to eat. More food means bigger and fatter cattle, which means more profit for the grazier.
Enter the dingo. Dingoes are predators that can reduce kangaroo densities in arid Australia rather efficiently. Yes, they do occasionally take out the odd calf, which counts as an economic loss to the farmer. But when you do the maths as we’ve done, they demonstrate clearly that the better-quality and higher biomass of grass left over after dingoes have done what they do best, results in a higher net profit to the farmer. How cool are dingoes?
In fact, we worked out that under normal stocking conditions in outback Australia, cattle graziers can make up to $0.83/hectare more when their dingo populations are healthy. That might not sound like a lot, but considering the average area of an Australian cattle station (50,000 to several 100,000 hectares), that works out to at least $50,000 to $150,o00 more earned per year. Nothing to scoff at.
Not only are the farmer’s profits higher, but there is less inter-annual variation in them given that having fewer kangaroos around reduces the amount of change in grass biomass from one year to the next. Such clever, dingo-friendly farmers would of course be able to brag that their native wildlife populations would be much healthier and happier with their protector dingos around.
It’s a win-win situation, and something we hope the cleverest farmers and policy makers eventually recognise.