LIVESTOCK guardian dogs are part of a suite of wild dog management tools — including trapping, baiting, shooting, exclusion fencing, camera trap monitoring — that is giving a WA family confidence to diversify their enterprise.
Gabyon Station runs 500 ewes and 1000 cows, and will now step into trade sheep to create an additional income stream.
The 271,500ha station is located in a 250mm rainfall zone 200km east of Geraldton and is the second largest station in the Yalgoo Shire.
Helen Cripps and her daughter Gemma bought Gabyon in 2009 and transitioned from Merino sheep to a flock of 7500 Damara ewes in 2012.
Gemma said the collapse of the live export market in 2013 resulted in regional landholders seeking alternative income in the mining sector, leaving stations without the manpower to carry out wild dog management.
“From then on, we started seeing larger losses to predation than we were used to and that rapidly ramped up to a 25 per cent loss of the flock each year,” she said.
“Lambing percentages in the good years were 120-130 per cent on a double joining but in 2019 we had 820 ewes in a paddock and got 560 ewes back with 17 lambs.
“Knowing you are losing that many sheep on your watch isn’t the best feeling.”
This was despite a sustained trapping, baiting and shooting program.
Gemma said Gabyon had always been set stocked and sold an average of 4000 feral goats a year.
“By 2016 the feral goats had gone down to zero through predation,” she said.
“We have the vermin proof fence running through the middle of the station with one third on the outside and two thirds on the inside, and the predation was as bad both sides.”
Helen and Gemma tried running larger mobs in paddocks that were relatively close to the homestead and concentrated their trapping and baiting efforts.
They fenced a single paddock with exclusion fencing and ran the sheep in there.
“That worked for a while but the dingoes were just too clever and worked out how to get over grids and fences,” Gemma said.
“The 2019 muster was the last straw – it was horrendous.”
Guardian dogs lifted lambing percentages
After trialling livestock guardian dogs in the past, Gemma was willing to try again and purchased four eight-week-old Maremma pups and an adult pair to bond with their last remaining 560 ewes.
“Last year we ended up with a lambing marking of 65 percent and lost five percent of the ewes inside the exclusion cell – we were heartened by the result,” she said.
“The reason we went with the six dogs was the paddock is 15,000 acres (6072ha) – three dogs don’t leave the sheep at all while the others are patrolling the paddock.
“In a normal 60ha paddock you would probably get away with two, but I would never recommend
putting a single Maremma in on its own,” she said.
“The bonding needs to be based around lambing ewes – train them using older ewes protective of the lambs so the Maremmas can quickly work out not to touch the lambs.
“Because of the scale of the station, we can leave a one paddock buffer or a 7-8km radius around the lambing paddock where no dog baits are laid,” Gemma said.
“We continue to bait and trap the rest of the station to keep wild dog numbers down so we can start rotating sheep through the paddocks once more exclusion fencing is completed.”
Gemma said there were four feeding stations in the 6000ha paddock; however, the Maremmas were also feeding on the kangaroos, rabbits and other wildlife.
“If the Maremmas don’t have a job looking after their sheep, they will be no better than the dingoes,” she said.
“They are not the panacea and are just another tool in the toolbox.
“The trapping, baiting, shooting and fencing has to be happening around them otherwise it will not work.”
Cameras installed to monitor wild dogs
Helen and Gemma have installed cameras to monitor wild dog activity and are participating in a Department of Primary Industries and regional Development, Western Australia, (DPIRD) research trial with GPS tracking and video collars used on four Maremmas and 10 ewes since July 2021.
“One of the main things we are trying to prove is if the Maremmas are staying with the sheep, if they are pushing dingoes into other areas, do they kill the dingoes or displace them.”
DPIRD research scientist, Invasive Species, Sustainability and Biosecurity, Tracey Kreplins, said the video footage had revealed the Maremmas patrolling the sheep paddock.
“There is evidence they spend a large percentage of their time with the sheep flock and are actively going after dingoes and attacking them.
“They are acting as a non-lethal tool by spending time with the sheep and as a lethal tool by actively taking on dingoes,” Dr Kreplins said.
“The downside to (livestock guardian dogs) is when there are massive peaks in wild dog activity, there are stock losses because the Maremmas are struggling to keep up.
“There is a tipping point where it is hard for the Maremmas to be as effective as possible.”
Dr Kreplins said at least two of the collared sheep were predated by dingoes.
“(Livestock guardian dogs) can’t stop the predation by 100 percent but reduce it,” she said.
“When the ewes go off to give birth, the Maremmas struggle about whether to go off with the individual sheep or stay with their flock.”
Trapping is still integral
Dr Kreplins said a trapping program on the property around the Maremma and sheep paddocks was integral to the success of the enterprise.
She said individual Maremmas had their own personalities with some being ideal guardian dogs and others more like pets.
Dr Kreplins said a South African study revealed 66pc of the Maremma diet was native animals and at Gabyon they were predating on kangaroos.
She recommended from four to eight Maremmas depending on mob size, paddock size and wild dog density, and using them as one of a suite of best practice management tools.
National Wild Dog Management coordinator Greg Mifsud said livestock guardian dogs patrol an aera outside the sheep flock as they move across the landscape, establishing what could be considered a defensive perimeter from which they can quickly respond to an approach by dingoes.
“The behaviour of Maremma’s seen here was similar to that observed on sheep stations in Queensland.
“This is contrary to theories that Maremmas protect sheep flocks by establishing territories which exclude wild dogs and dingoes because they recognise the boundaries and actively avoid them,” Mr Mifsud said.
For information on using guardian livestock animals for livestock protection and wild dog exclusion and to read the Livestock Guardian Dog/Wild Dog Interaction Study undertaken in Queensland click here.
Firstly, there are extremely few, if any, “wild dogs” in Western Australia. They are our iconic, native apex predator, the dingo.
If the graziers in this story learnt about how dingoes live their enterprise would prosper. The 1080, trapping and shooting is not the answer. The alpha male and female of a pack are the only breeders. Other adults hunt and teach pups hunting. Remove the alphas or older dogs and you will have starving young dogs that will kill and eat whatever they can catch. The learning chain is removed from the packs and chaos among stock results. Leave dingoes alone and, like a number of Western Australian graziers have found, grazing land improves because dingoes predate rabbits, goats, foxes, feral cats and keep kangaroos in balance. Native fauna returns and feral animals start disappearing.
On another note, raising sheep in marginal and arid areas in WA is always going to be heart breaking, Dingoes or no Dingoes.