Farmers pin hopes on fences to bring wild dogs to heel

Zach RelphCountryman
Ashley Dowden, of Challa Station in the Mid West, has been forced out of sheep by wild dogs.
Camera IconAshley Dowden, of Challa Station in the Mid West, has been forced out of sheep by wild dogs. Credit: John Mokrzycki

Fifth-generation pastoralist Ashley Dowden comes from a proud line of farmers to run sheep at the Mid West’s historic Challa Station.

And he is determined not to be the last.

Challa Station was among leases caught up in WA’s ferocious wild dog scourge, making sheep a rare commodity across the State’s rangelands when many pastoralists were forced to de-stock.

The continued sight of bloodied and dead Merinos made it an easy decision for Mr Dowden, whose family have been at the property since it was first pegged in 1888, and wife Debbie to opt out of sheep in 2008.

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“We had our flock decimated 10 years ago,” Mr Dowden said.

“When the wild dogs first came into this area, one thing we said to ourselves was, ‘We won’t let them turn our sheep into dog food’.

“If we couldn’t stop the dogs we wanted to sell the sheep, and that’s what we did — we have no sheep left.”

The Dowdens now run about 1000 Santa Gertrudis cattle at Challa, which has been no easy feat while battling the Mid West’s recent dry seasonal conditions.

A dog trap.
Camera IconA dog trap. Credit: Tori O'Connor
The 1080 toxin is used by pastoralists to mitigate wild dog populations.
Camera IconThe 1080 toxin is used by pastoralists to mitigate wild dog populations. Credit: Tori O'Connor

The heartbreaking decision to de-stock on the back of the devastating wild dog influx has prevented Mr Dowden from flourishing in Australia’s record wool prices, trading at more than 2000¢/kg earlier this year.

Although the sheep are gone, evidence of the pest is everywhere, according to Mr Dowden, despite sightings of the cagey canine being rare.

However, with developments on the Murchison Regional Vermin Council’s cell fence — set to surround 52 stations and encompass 6.5 million hectares — making headway, Challa Station is eyeing a return to its sheep origins.

Backed by two State Government grants totalling $1.14 million, Murchison and Mid West pastoralists are banking on the behemoth fence to safeguard properties from wild dog populations.

The infrastructure builds on the existing State Barrier Fence, with the new funding set to erect the remaining 326km to complete the 1400km development.

A jubilant Mr Dowden is among the contingent bullish that the deterrent measure will give farmers an upper hand against wild dogs.

He hopes to re-enter the sheep industry within three years after the long-awaited project’s completion.

“We will be inside the boundary, right on the eastern side,” he said.

“Once it is finished, it could take upward of three years to clean out the dogs inside the fence and then hopefully after three years we can get back into sheep — I’m optimistic, I really am.

“The country isn’t suited to cattle and our preference wasn’t to enter into cattle, but you have to do what you have to do to survive.

“We are well-positioned to go back into sheep because we have maintained all of our sheep infrastructure even though we haven’t had any for 10 years.”

The mighty MRVC cell will stand in conjunction with the 180km Murchison hub cell fence, which is poised to surround four pastoral leases, to strengthen wild dog prevention measures.

It will run north via Jingemarra and Meka stations.

Brett and Jo Kanny, who were forced out of sheep at Wagga Wagga Station near Yalgoo by wild dogs about two years ago, are among pastoral lease holders plotting a return to the wool trade. The Jones-owned Murrum and Boogardie stations are operated by brothers John and Henry Jones, who have also voiced intentions to host sheep again, after the two fence developments are protecting the region from vermin.

While pest-proof fences have long been hailed as catalysts to safeguard farmers’ stocks from persistent wild dog attacks, Murchison and Mid West pastoralists are also implementing vast baiting regimes to tackle the issue.

About 26 tonnes of meat, mainly horse, is being processed into baits — injected with the 1080 toxin — annually and distributed across Meekatharra, Yalgoo and Cue.

Wild dogs pups in the northern Goldfields.
Camera IconWild dogs pups in the northern Goldfields. Credit: Daniel Briggs, Invasive Animals CRC
A trapped wild dog
Camera IconA trapped wild dog Credit: Western Trapping Supplies

Professional doggers have also been engaged in the area, providing on-ground pest management control to further aid the mitigation efforts.

More than 600km south-east of Challa Station, Goldfields pastoral leases near WA’s gold capital are also fighting the wild dog issue.

Brendan Jones, owner of Mt Monger Station about 60km east of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, elected to diversify his operation and abandon sheep for cattle amid the intensifying savage canine threat.

Mt Monger was once one of the Goldfields’ premier sheep stations, but now holds about 700 head of cattle, with Mr Jones refusing to dismiss returning to wool if canine populations are subdued.

The 950km Kalgoorlie Pastoral Alliance’s cluster cell development, to surround 11 stations and 2.4 million hectares of rangelands, is poised to start in the new year in an effort to fortify pest prevention.

With the KPA cell development also providing hope to Kalgoorlie-Boulder pastoralists, the region’s premier biosecurity group is ushering in a new era and trumpeting the wool industry’s return.

Soon-to-be Goldfields Nullarbor Rangelands Biosecurity Association chief executive Michelle Donaldson is poised to take the reins from veteran WA pastoralist identity Ross Wood on January 1.

The incoming boss is confident the touted fence could emerge as the flame to reignite the area’s once- burgeoning sheep sector.

In preparation for the fence’s completion, the GNBRA has been equipping station owners across the Goldfields and Nullarbor with trapping equipment since October.

It is a move championed by Mrs Donaldson, who is confident the area’s once thriving rangelands can home sheep in the near future.

“We wanted to give pastoralists the option get into trapping again,” she said.

“We are encouraging the pastoralists to take trapping on.

“There are a lot of dogs around, especially younger ones at the moment, so we need to get on top of them before they mature.”

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