Dogs of war

Derek Nugent on the never-ending fight against wild canines

When is man’s best friend not his friend? Simple: When it’s a rogue feral dog targeting both livestock and native animals alike. By accident or design, Australia is a continent infested by feral species. Over the centuries a myriad of non-native invasive plants and animals have become firmly established across the landscape with all manner of beasts from rabbit to buffalo including fox, deer, wild pig, horse, donkey, goat and even camels now happily calling Australia home.

But at what cost? The destruction of native ecosystems and animal species comes immediately to mind as does ongoing losses to agricultural production and output. Without doubt though, one of the most virulent and savage contributors to this situation is the predatory behaviour of Canis lupus familiaris gone rogue: The wild dog.

History and distribution

In Australia the term wild dog refers to any undomesticated canine living free in the wild and specifically includes dingoes, dingo-dog hybrids and dogs run wild. It’s not a scientific term but more a convenient euphemism used colloquially in research material, media releases, government publications (including legislation) and wider circles when discussing impacts and control measures.

The dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is said to have arrived here from Asia roughly 4000 years ago. Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) arrived with European settlement in 1788 and consequent cross-breeding resulted in hybridization of the two which naturally continues to this day. The net outcome is a declining population of pure-bred dingoes and an ever-increasing number of feral dogs of hybrid/domestic origin.

The exact number of wild dogs in Australia is virtually impossible to calculate, however state and federal government research and projects undertaken by tertiary institutions, conservation and lobby groups seems to suggest the following approximations. In respect to dingoes alone there’s an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 with the only 100 per cent pure-bred population being found on Queensland’s Fraser Island. The Tanami Desert population comes next with a 90 per cent purity rate.

All other populations are contaminated by hybridization to some degree and state-by-state that degree of genetic impurity is as follows: WA 41 per cent, SA 68, NSW 99, NT 13, Qld 80, Vic 99, resulting in an accepted average national figure of 66 per cent. This is suggestive of there being some 6600 ferals and 3400 pure dingoes in a population of 10,000 animals, though not all studies agree with this analysis.

In respect to all wild dogs as a single population, an interesting study was conducted by Uni NSW around 2019 with DNA samples taken randomly from 5039 wild dogs, with results somewhat contradictory of the hybridization data listed previously. Surprisingly, this study revealed some 64 per cent of sample animals were indicative of pure dingo while only 36 per cent showed hybrid or feral origins. This study suggests that of every 100 wild dogs, 64 were pure-bred dingoes and 36 were true ferals, so to extrapolate in a population of 10,000 wild dogs it seems 6400 would be classified as pure dingoes and 3600 as ferals.

The seemingly contradictory outcomes of these studies serves to demonstrate the difficulty in determining the true numbers of wild dogs in Australia, particularly as the genetic definition of a ‘dingo’ is quite fluid across jurisdictions and open to interpretation. Yet by fusing the implications of each study and using accepted dingo numbers as a baseline, a fairly broad estimation of wild dog numbers can be had, though its accuracy is quite another matter.

Using this methodology it would appear the wild dog population, inclusive of dingoes, would lie somewhere between 16,000 and 150,000 individuals, though the former seems ridiculously low and the latter suspiciously high. The true number then lies somewhere in-between these two extremes and remains open to speculation as populations vary season to season, district to district and state to state. Yet the one incontestable fact is wild dogs are an established, significant predatory species widespread across the nation, present in all states and majority of environments and ecosystems.

Biology and behaviour

A plethora of research papers and reports have been produced by state and federal government departments with a vested interest in the issue of wild dogs and their management. Their work when reviewed produces a consistent and detailed analysis of wild dog biology and behaviour, the agreed wisdom being they have an average lifespan of 5-7 years with some perhaps attaining the age of 12.

Appearance is very much dependent on the ancestry of each animal, with its genetic inheritance being reflected in its physical ‘look’ (size, build, colouring). Most are short-haired and can weigh up to 60kg. The dingo itself tends to be ginger with white points (ears, paws, tail) with a short bristled tail and average weight of 16kg. White and black variants occur naturally as well. Research suggests hybrids, which are sometimes impossible to pick from pure-breds, have increased the weight and size of some ‘dingoes’ by up to 20 per cent, tipping the scales at 24kg.

Wild dogs are social animals and regularly form packs for the purposes of defence and hunting and a hierarchy around breeding and rights to food exists in each pack. Unlike a dingo, a female dog has two oestrus cycles annually so can in theory breed twice a year. In reality, breeding takes place in the autumn and winter months, producing an average of five pups per litter after a 63-day gestation.

The dominant female in a pack will become fertile before subordinate females, though all reach sexual maturity at about two years of age, males at three. A pack’s territory can vary in size and will often overlap that of others, while some animals maintain a solo existence and range over a larger area and across the territory of several packs.

Wild dogs are most active at dawn and dusk but can be encountered at all hours of the day and night. They’ll cover up to 15km a day while engaged in ‘intense’ activity like hunting and ‘exploratory’ activity like scent-marking. A dog appears to be active 65 per cent of its day and resting 35 per cent. Wild dogs will hunt both individually and as part of a pack and target a wide range of prey including agricultural stock (sheep, cattle and their offspring), a range of feral animals like deer, goats and their young and native animals including koalas.

They’ll sometimes attack an animal without killing it, called ‘surplus killing’ which is common predatory behaviour across many apex species and probably related to the dog’s instinctive reaction to chase a fleeing animal, which can result in shocking injuries and lingering death. While a dingo can’t bark, feral dogs both bark and howl and do so as a means of communication, the latter to locate other dogs, attract pack members and challenge intruders. Scent marking is another well-established means of communication.

Impact and management

Wild dog predation has a significant impact agriculturally, economically, environmentally and socially across Australia each year. Socially there’s an unimaginable emotional and psychological impact on landowners faced with the daunting prospect of ongoing predation on their stock and livelihood.

The true economic dimensions of this impact are almost impossible to accurately quantify as each jurisdiction produces and publishes its own figures in respect to the cost of both impact and management of these animals. The Centre for Invasive Species Solutions suggests a national annual agricultural loss of some $90+ million, a figure supported by SA government research.

However Queensland government sources claim a loss of $70+ million annually to the state’s grazing industry alone, while the NT Cattleman’s Association places their members losses at $60+ million. The Victorian Department of Agriculture cites losses of 2000 sheep annually, while ABC sources estimate 10-20 per cent of calves were lost annually to dog predation in WA. In fact, noted WA dog hunter Matt Cole in 2019 took 173 wild dogs off six properties in six months in the Kimberly.

As a case in point David Stoate, owner of Anna Plains Station 250km south of Broome, says his annual (2019) spend on wild dog control measures exceeded $50,000. The animals also carry an identified 38 species of pathogens and parasites, both animal borne and zoonotic (able to infect humans). These include Neospora, a parasite which can be transferred between dogs and cattle and is estimated to cost Australia’s dairy and beef industry $110 million annually and is responsible for 30 per cent of all abortions in cattle.

Beyond the obvious and dire agricultural impact, wild dogs are also an acknowledged threat to native wildlife including 14 endangered or vulnerable species (mammal, reptile and bird), with small populations in niche ecosystems particularly at risk. Recent Australian National University research estimates losses among all categories of native animals to feral predation approaches a staggering three billion a year.

While these are mainly attributed to cats and foxes, other ferals like pigs and wild dogs contribute their share. The latter target whatever food sources exist in their locality and this includes kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, possums, koalas, wombats and the like. Native birds, especially ground nesters like coucals, curlews and swans are also at high risk. Frogs and reptiles like bearded dragons and blue tongue lizards are not immune either, with some dogs becoming specialist hunters of a particular species which drives smaller localized populations to the brink of extinction.

The fact these dogs also target other feral species and play a part in managing local populations of foxes, cats, rabbits/hares, pigs, goats and deer, particularly through predation of their young, doesn’t outweigh the unmitigated devastation they inflict on livestock and native animals. Wild dogs are a curse on the community and the one ‘service’ they may be seen to provide doesn’t render the need to manage their numbers moot, quite the reverse.

Their effective management is a necessarily blunt affair. A variety of control measures exist including shooting, trapping, baiting and the use of exclusion fencing and guardian animals. Shooting is opportunistic and mostly effective in controlling small populations of dogs or particular problem animals, as is trapping which is more specialized, time-consuming and labour intensive.

Baiting programs are an economic and effective measure usually involving poisoned meat baits distributed by hand, vehicle or air. Baits are treated with 1080, PAPP or strychnine, though sadly can take a toll on non-target native species which is clearly a highly undesirable outcome.

Fencing options can be useful in excluding wild dogs from particular paddocks and restricting their movements across a property, though there’s significant cost associated with construction and maintenance. The use of guardian animals like donkeys, alpacas, llamas and indeed other dogs is also an option and one widely practiced in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Regardless, each has varying degrees of success and usage in concert is likely to have the most impact.

The situation in my home state of Queensland is straightforward with the wild dog categorized as an invasive animal under the Biosecurity act of 2014, which means landowners have a legal responsibility – a General Biosecurity Obligation (GBO) – to control them on their land. This includes the dingo which is only protected in certain areas like National Parks.

Subsequent to the legislation wild dogs cannot be kept, fed, given away, sold or released into the environment without a permit. Furthermore, all local government jurisdictions are required to develop and implement a community biosecurity plan for their region. Most have wild dogs as a high priority and require landowners to take reasonable steps to minimize their impact and I can only assume this is the same across Australia.

Reality bites

I’ve no qualms about targeting wild dogs on my property and on the holdings of neighbours and friends beset by this canine menace. Nothing fires me up more than finding the remains of a partly devoured koala or having to put down hideously maimed stock.

Aside from meeting my GBO under the Act, I firmly believe I’m doing more for conservation of native species and ecosystems by being out and about with a rifle and dispatching wild dogs on sight than any city-based ‘greenie’. I doubt the anti-gun lobby gives any thought to the essential role played by thousands of us who apply our time and effort to controlling wild dogs and the social, economic and environmental benefits which flow to local communities because of it.

This article is by no means meant to be a definitive exposé on the wild dog in Australia, it’s more a considered synthesis of the available material on the topic from a diverse range of stakeholder sources. This includes universities, government agencies, media, conservation groups and agricultural agencies and putting aside the emotion, bias and agendas of particular interest groups, several rock-solid facts emerge.

Firstly, like all Australia’s feral animals the wild dog is firmly entrenched in the environment and is very much here to stay. While numbers can’t be accurately gauged and may vary from region to region, it’s reasonable to accept the population is at best stable but more than likely increasing with hybridization swamping the dingo gene pool.

Secondly, the wild dog has a significant undesirable impact across many aspects of life. It costs the agricultural sector millions of dollars in losses and control measures annually, even if that figure itself is difficult to calculate. Emotionally it places a further burden on the resilience of landowners whose stock and livelihoods are under constant attack, while environmentally these dogs place at risk localised individual populations and long-term viability of many native species.

Finally and most emphatically the wild dog needs to be controlled. In this respect and in spite of woke attacks on our ability to own and use firearms, there’s a role for all of us to play whenever a legitimate opportunity arises. Whether as an individual or part of a dedicated program like SSAA Farmer Assist, there’s a chance to let actions speak louder than our detractors’ words to the benefit of the environment, friends, neighbours and the community as a whole.

  • Statistical data and factual material for this presentation was garnered, summarised and synthesized into an original article from a variety of publicly available sources.
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