Don Caswell follows nature’s subtle signs to despatch crafty canines
Over the past decade I have devoted considerable effort into hunting wild dogs. In the northern tropics, wild dogs are increasing in numbers and take a heavy toll on livestock and native fauna.
When I was first targeting wild dogs, I gathered a valuable starter’s kit of recommendations and guidance from my old friend Robbie, a full-time professional dogger. Since then, I have built on that knowledge, as a recent successful wild dog hunt demonstrates.
A local grazier called to say he was missing a few calves and his breeding herd was gathered into the topmost part of the paddock. He had not seen any wild dogs, but the evidence pointed to their unwelcome presence. My hunting buddy, Peter, and I have taken numerous wild dogs from this property and were welcome to hunt there anytime we wished. Our host told us where to find the key to a locked entry gate and said he would tell his neighbours that we were active there again and they might hear a shot or two.
With a tropical wet season in full swing, we had experienced plenty of rain, and the grass in the paddocks was exceptionally deep and thick. Normally, we would hunt this location on foot, but the depth of grass was a challenge that called for the use of Pete’s 4WD hunting buggy. We took a circuitous route, enabling an approach into the top quarter of the paddock with the wind in our face. Unusually, with monsoonal weather activity, it was a direct easterly breeze. The waft carried with it the smell of death. Somewhere in front of us were the remains of at least one of the missing calves.
We did not want to approach any closer for a few reasons. Pete had found a small mound to park the ATV that greatly improved our view over the deep grass for a 360-degree sweep of the property. More importantly, we did not want to disturb the scene of the kill with our scent and disruption to the grass around the carcass. If and when the wild dogs arrived, we wanted them to be as relaxed as possible. We would have limited opportunities for a shot. The next step was to locate the remains of the calf.
We both scanned the area before us with our binoculars. Pete picked up a subtle clue and pointed out what he had noticed. About 70m ahead of us, a small patch of the lush green grass had a slightly darker shade to it. Through our optically sharp Leica and Swarovski binoculars we could identify the stain on the grass was due to a huge gathering of blowflies and flies on the grass stems above the carrion. So, now we knew exactly where the dogs would be coming to.
Not long after noticing the flies, while admiring the spectacular view, I picked up a fleeting glimpse of a large, black wild dog crossing a gap between patches of jungle. He was a long way off, 600m or more, and straight behind the kill from us. However, he was not coming our way, but heading off at right angles to that line of approach. We reasoned that, if he was a wary old campaigner, he would be circling right around to approach the kill into the wind, rather than approach it directly with the wind blowing from behind him.
With Pete keeping a watch ahead of us, I spent most of my time carefully monitoring the country all around us. The breeder paddock featured a long central spur, about 700m long, running from the commanding ridge at the top end, down to a river flood plain. The cows and their new calves had drawn some courage from our presence and began feeding down the top of the spur, towards the flood plain.
Cattle, sometimes, are great indicators of the presence of wild dogs. I have enjoyed some good success by interpreting their response to these predators, before I laid eyes on them myself.
The mob of cows and calves were a bit over 150m from us, lower down the slope of the spur. They all seemed fairly placid and were just grazing about slowly. Some of the bigger calves were frolicking among their mothers. I was looking well past them, to the lower bottom of the spur, hoping to see a pair of black ears among the long grass.
Suddenly, my eyes were drawn back to the mob of cattle. With a jolt, I realised that a black dog was now amid the cattle. He was not hunting as such, but was testing the defences, as it were, seeking to push a calf to the outside of the group. The cows seemed fairly unconcerned with the dog’s presence but were nevertheless keeping their calves in close check.
I alerted Pete and paused while he moved into position with his .308 Sako. I also had to wait for the dog to give me a clear shot. Luckily, he stayed on the top of the spur where the grass was eaten down somewhat. After a little while, he decided to examine something of interest in the grass and, with a clear shot posing no risk to the cattle, I squeezed off a 100-grain Fiocchi soft-point from my Merkel K3 in .243 Winchester. There was the satisfying whop of a solid hit and the dog folded-up into the grass. The cattle, far from being alarmed, came over to inspect and sniff the dead wild dog.
With the dog accounted for, and no other wild dogs apparent, we unloaded our rifles and went to check on the mutt. However, I had my rifle slung over my shoulder and kept a good lookout. Dogs are curious critters and, at this very spot a couple of months earlier, the surviving fourth member of a pack showed up as we were dragging its three dead companions in for a photo.
I would rate cattle at about 50/50 indicators to the presence of wild dogs. Sometimes they will react like you see in the best wildlife documentaries and form a defensive circle with their calves in the centre. At other times, despite recent attacks, they show virtually no response to lurking wild dogs.
However, when cattle do react, it is in your interest to pay attention. At times, I have been able to track the approach of wild dogs from the cattle’s behaviour and attention, until the dogs finally revealed themselves and offered me a shot. Wallabies and roos are also good indicators for wild dogs and when you see these native animals go on alert, or run, you need to look for the cause.
At other times, birds have proved to be reliable pointers for wild dogs. As any farmer would tell you, wild dogs often take a heavy toll on domestic poultry. That behaviour extends to wild birds as well. I witnessed wild dogs taking curlews and brolgas. I have also seen them try for ducks and egrets.
One of the farmers, who I have shot wild dogs for, called me one day and told me I should come see what he had found harvesting a crop. It was only a short drive to his farm. I joined him on the tractor and he showed me 30 piles of grey-blue feathers scattered along a couple of hundred metres of crop stubble. These were the remains of brolgas killed by wild dogs.
The dogs sneak in to the border between cultivation and forest. From there, they charge out to attack the brolgas that have unwisely come too close to the border. Being a large, heavy bird, it takes brolgas a distance to become airborne and many are snatched out of the air as they try to gain elevation and height.
Lapwings, known to most as spur-winged plovers, are a ground nesting bird with a noisy and aggressive response to anything they see as a potential threat. These birds are a great gauge of wild dog presence. They will loudly become airborne and swoop any dog that enters their territory, providing plenty of warning.
Likewise, if there is a carcass out there with a collection of egrets, or crows and kites around it. The white egrets eat the many bugs drawn to the carrion while the kites and crows feed on the carcass itself. Their presence at a kill tells you that there are no wild dogs present. Should that collection of birds suddenly take flight, you better shift your attention back to the area of the carcass.
When checking a large expanse of pasture, any bird that suddenly takes to the air is worth investigating. Even paddocks with short grass can produce surprises. Wild dogs are pretty close to the ground. Gentle undulations in the terrain, and patches of grass, can effectively hide their approach.
On numerous occasions I have seen dogs materialise, as if out of nowhere, and rush a flock of birds. I suspect that the dogs have seen the birds from a long way off and probably stalked them, keeping low and with ears laid back.
So, when glassing a wide expanse of pasture, I concentrate on looking for ears above the grass and just maintain an awareness of those areas with birds foraging on the ground. The birds will alarm and scatter, giving warning of any wild dogs in their immediate vicinity.