Wild dog management in Victoria today

Community-based control strategies deliver sustainable solutions

  • The Victorian wild dog control program is considered best practice.
  • A template-style delivery and response system ensures all producers can expect similar support.
  • Community engagement is essential for landscape-scale control program success.
  • Stakeholders must guard against complacency when wild dog management programs are successful.
  • Victoria – the pin up state for successful wild dog management

Victoria has come a long way in wild dog management, while shifting community perceptions about responsibility for ongoing control.

Tim Enshaw, a Community Wild Dog Coordinator with the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) said that Victorian stakeholders benefited from embracing a community approach and learning from interstate land managers’ experience with wild dog management.

According to Tim, it is the impact of wild dogs on emotional and financial resources which should reinforce the importance of ongoing control.

The damage caused by wild dog attacks is very confronting and the associated impacts can significantly affect the health of both land owners and rural communities.

“With wild dogs, a sheep producer can be severely impacted economically in a very short space of time which can threaten their long-term viability,” Tim said.

The Victorian Wild Dog Program has evolved into an integrated program where local communities are involved in developing wild dog management zone work plans.

To achieve effective wild dog management, community participants, government employees and other related professionals were upskilled in wild dog management techniques and ecology.   Additional research and development investment addressed knowledge gaps and increased proactive and reactive control measures on public and private land.

After establishing local community wild dog control groups, the Victorian Government, through stakeholder consultation, commercialized 1080 bait manufacture, sale and supply to support the successful introduction of proactive ground baiting. The Australian Government conditionally approved aerial baiting for the control of wild dogs at six priority locations identified by community wild dog control groups.

Tim said one of the benefits of using baiting as a primary control tool is that it provides continuous control across a large area with less resources than is required for trapping. Once bait stations are established, proactive baiting can be undertaken by wild dog controllers, trained volunteers and landholders.

Trapping relies on a network of wild dog controllers working with landholders to set and maintain traps on government and private land.

Tim said the program’s effectiveness relies on proactive baiting and reactive trapping working in tandem.  Trapping is primarily used to catch wild dogs after reports of livestock attacks or deaths but can also be used to capture wild dogs that regularly walk passed baits.

Proactive trapping on public land is undertaken when an opportunity arises, but given a lack of resources, Tim said it was a luxury

Community support underpins the success of these methods with the Wild Dog Program using engagement strategies to keep groups involved and aware.

“In Victoria, we operate a template-style system so the same process of recording and attending to wild dog incidents is applied in all locations,” Tim said.

 “No matter where a producer or landholder is when they report a wild dog sighting or attack, they are directed to their local wild dog controller.”

This system reinforces a unified approach to wild dog control, with incidents recorded in a database and community members directed to the resources needed.

“If you’re in wild dog country you know about it and you realise it’s a big problem,” he said.

“However, someone can live 10 kilometres away, have different geography, run different livestock and operate different farm practices and be unaware of the problems wild dogs cause.”

Tim said it is important landholders don’t become complacent about wild dog control.

“If a landholder is no longer experiencing wild dog problems, they naturally move onto their next problem,” he said. “Wild dog control is one of 100 things to do on their list and it can easily revert from priority number one to 99.

“It’s important to work with producers to make wild dog control easy and to keep them involved so the program continues to work successfully.”

Running sheep with safety

Sheep have returned to Phillip Mudge’s Ensay property after wild dog attacks drove him out of the industry in 2010.  At one point, he had a wild dog living on his property, and the dog’s friends regularly visited, bringing further havoc.

After joining a community baiting group, Phillip and his neighbours began twice-yearly baiting.

When the baiting program removed the wild dogs living on his property, he installed electric fencing to keep other dogs out and reported any sightings to the local wild dog controller.

“We have several wild dog controllers in the area who will come onto private land when needed, and also do extensive work on public land,” he said.

“With any sightings they always come and talk to the farmer and go onto the land to see what they can do to catch the dogs.”

This is a turnaround, as farmers and wild dog controllers haven’t always had the best relationship.

“I’ve seen good and bad controllers.  One, in particular, didn’t have the communication skills needed to relate to producers, so that was a dead loss,” Phillip said.

Like Tim, Phillip believes maintenance of electric fences and baiting to manage wild dogs should be part of ongoing farm maintenance.

“We had wild dogs everywhere and they were brought under control for three years, but now they are coming back,” he said.

“You take out one and it seems like two take its place: it’s something you have to keep on all the time.”

Additional to ongoing maintenance and awareness, Phillip said success comes when there is good communication among landholders and other stakeholders.

“Just before Christmas, a spraying contractor saw three dogs on private land.  He told the owner and within several hours all the neighbours knew and a local baiting program was implemented,” Phillip said.

“Don’t think they’ve been sighted since the baiting program.”

Phillip explained his return to sheep was the result of the work he, the community and government agencies had put into controlling wild dogs.

“The area had been hit hard and some had to get out of sheep, but now I’m back and have lambs again,” he said.

“It’s good to see positives coming out of the program. It’s hard to complain when things are going your way.”

A day in a wild dog controller’s life

Wild dog controller Jim Benton has seen a lot of sunrises.

“If you love the bush and you’re happy in your own company, it’s a pretty good job,” he said.

One of the rarer trades these days, Jim has been hunting wild dogs for about 30 years and when farmers are under the pump, so is he with his working day regularly stretching to either side of daylight.

A typical day starts from home at remote Timbarra, north-west of Buchan. Where he goes and what he does is very much dictated by telephone calls he fielded from farmers the night before and where attacks on stock are occurring.

A tiered or ‘triage’ type approach to responding to landholder calls has been implemented in Victoria to assist landholders and help them to help themselves.

“We talk to the landholder as soon as we can and, if required, aim to be on site within 24 hours while the dog tracks and scent are fresh,” Jim said.

For the untrained eye, looking for a few dogs in thousands of hectares of bushland is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack but according to Jim this is where years of experience – most of the time – pays off.

“Finding the culprits, particularly if the farmer hasn’t seen them, is the hardest part of the job but there are clues,” he said.

“Topography has a big influence as dogs tend to travel down ridgelines.

“History can be helpful – where dogs have come from before and whether there are established movement patterns.

“We also use our own trap dogs to follow scent and identify the best places to lay a trap or bait.”

If livestock are being regularly harassed, Jim will go out to the paddock early in the hope of catching the culprit in the act.

“Dogs are generally more likely to attack stock just before daylight, just after dark or on a moonlit night when they have some visibility,” he said.

When Jim isn’t at the coalface dealing with distressed farmers, he is checking extensive trap lines which are part of the Victorian Wild Dog Action Plan’s proactive and reactive strategy.

For Jim these soft-jaw traps may be located anywhere from Lakes Entrance to Gelantipy and each trap has to be checked within 72 hours.

Technology is making the job easier. Remote sensing cameras that send images to mobile phones are making it easier for ‘doggers’, as Jim’s trade is often known.  The cameras which see where dogs travel and how many are in a pack are also being trialled for checking traps, potentially saving hours of travel time.

Need to remain vigilant

Ian Junor is a producer and a committee member of the Omeo Benambra Landcare group in East Gippsland. In 2016 he took over the management of the group’s baiting program which has operated since 2012.

He said while it is difficult to measure the baiting program’s effectiveness, he hasn’t lost a single sheep in 2½  years where the year before he started baiting he lost more than 160.

“The group heavily baits private land as part of the Victorian Wild Dog program. In the beginning, there were lots of wild dogs but now I hardly see any,” Ian said.

While the baiting he and the group undertake has had a big impact on private land, Ian believes dog numbers are still too high on government land which he said was a considerable source of anger and frustration within the community.

“Dogs are coming out of bushland and state forest on to private land and we don’t see the government doing enough to stop them” he said.

Despite feeling ‘on their own’, Ian and his fellow producers focus on being proactive, working together and communicating regularly so information on any dog attacks or sightings is shared with landholders so they can bait or trap.

“If I see a dog, or I’m having trouble I let my neighbours know,” Ian said.

An essential element of this communication is working with other land managers to co-ordinate their baiting efforts across the valley. To achieve this, Ian liaises with AWI-funded facilitators hosted by the Wild Dog Program to coordinate a day when all stakeholders can meet to pick up baits.

“We meet at the pub to arrange a time and place to distribute baits and everyone goes off and baits on private land,” he said.

Ian has called for more resources to cut down on the number of wild dogs roaming on government land.

“We need more controllers and DELWP staff on the ground who are accountable to the community and are working with them to control the dogs,” he said.

“It would also help if DELWP used aerial baiting, across crown land that’s hard to access in my local area.”

Maintaining the rage is key to reducing stock attacks

Wild dog activity statewide is ‘very quiet’ in comparative terms, however, according to the DELWP’s acting State Manager Wild Dog Program, Vaughn Kingston, this is no time for resting on laurels.

“If we get complacent, if our community baiting and trapping programs lose momentum then all of us – farmers, community and government – are at risk of seeing history repeat itself.” he said.

Vaughn has worked in wild dog control for more than 15 years and has been part of the uniform, state-wide response since its inception in 2002.

“Prior to that dog control was not coordinated at all and strategies could vary considerably from one district to another,” he said.

“Unfortunately, what worked successfully in one district was very rarely shared with another making the entire program far less effective.”

Vaughn said today there is far more clarity with known expectations from staff and community, far better co-ordination of control efforts and more consistency of delivery.

“In saying that, we still have farmers losing stock and we continue to work together to improve their circumstances but, overall, we’re in a far better space,” he said

According to Vaughn achieving that ‘better space’ was not smooth sailing with some farmers frustrated and at wits’ end with what they perceived as a community-wide lack of action and support.

“When we started this collaborative approach, supported by ongoing baiting and trapping on public land, I remember explaining to farmers that it might take a few years to see a change,” he said.

“It wasn’t what some people wanted to hear but now, more than a decade down the track, I think people can well and truly see the benefits to their bottom line and the reduced personal pressures associated with wild dogs.”

Vaughn believes the challenge going forward is to keep the community engaged in wild dog control, in the annual consultation processes that guide cross-tenure control programs and to keep abreast of new control options.