MERRIWA’S long and proud history as a wool producing area could be under threat if wild dogs aren’t dealt with.
The Upper Hunter area has been plagued with wild dog problems, leading to a number of wool growers changing production systems, but the local wild dog association and Hunter Local Lands Services (LLS) are pulling together to trap troublesome dogs.
A jointly funded trapper program has had tremendous success with Scone-based trapper Ben Johnsen catching more than 20 dogs at Merriwa and Timor, near Scone, this year.
Mr Johnsen’s work, which included many hours of walking scrub to track dogs, the use of a howling machine and targeted trapping techniques, was the start of what many hope will be a huge change in the way dogs are controlled in the area.
The region has relied on baiting programs for many years, but with little response.
Hunter Valley Combined Wild Dog Association chair Craig Murphy, Timor, said a targeted approach to wild dogs using baiting and trapping was the answer, but more funding was needed to continue trapping programs.
The dogs were caught using $10,000 in corporate sponsorship, and the group has received another $10,500 from the Hunter LLS, which will fund trapping on seven more properties in the region.
“What we need is a sustainable funding model, and we need more members in the association,” Mr Murphy said.
“We have between 200 and 300 members, but there are landholders who have sheep that aren’t members, they just haven’t had a hit from wild dogs yet.”
Seven of the dogs recently caught by Mr Johnsen were trapped at Merriwa property “Gundibri”, owned by the Munro family.
James Munro said he was impressed by the work, which started with Mr Johnsen and LLS senior biosecurity officer Richard Ali walking “thousands of acres of scrub country”.
“We’ve been seeing the black dog for three years, maybe longer,” he said.
“Ben found dogs we didn’t know we had. We’ve tried to bait but I think you need multiple control measures. The baiting programs aren’t getting a lot of the older dogs. They’re too smart.”
Mr Munro runs 9500 soft-rolling-skin Merinos and has been losing between 200 and 300 sheep and lambs each year.
He said the wild dogs were at their worst since 25 years ago when the family suffered the loss of 800 sheep. The Munros have lost about 50 lambs in the past month.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a big or small producer, if you’re losing sheep, it’s very distressing,” Mr Munro said.
“It’s nearly always the lambs that are on cultivation near the scrub country and at times we’ve lost three or four in a night.
“From our perspective, if we didn’t love our sheep, we’d have all cattle, and some producers are already going away from sheep because they’re not prepared to suffer the losses.
“I don’t want to go out of sheep – I want to increase numbers.”
Mr Murphy said getting a professional trapper in had proven the need to run a series of trapping programs.
“If, in every program, we got at least one dog, it’d be worth it, but we’re getting many more so it’s definitely paying off,” he said.
Mr Munro said addressing the dog problem was “beyond the average farmer”, but encouraged landholders to support the dog group’s work.
“A farmer hasn’t got the skills or the time to be walking paddocks to track dogs.
“They don’t compare to the work of a professional trapper, and if you set traps up incorrectly the dogs get trap shy. Ben’s not making any mistakes.”
Mr Johnsen trapped 14 dogs in a five-week program west of Merriwa in February.
One of the landholders, Pete Campbell, owns “Woodlands”, “Tunbridge”, “Tooloongatta”, with many of the dogs caught at “Tunbridge”.
“We’ve been baiting for the past 10 years, but these were all old dogs that had slipped through the baiting program – the baiting wasn’t stopping the killing and we needed to add another tool,” Mr Campbell said.
If we didn’t love our sheep, we’d have all cattle, and some producers are already going away from sheep because they’re not prepared to suffer the losses. I don’t want to go out of sheep – I want to increase numbers.
Local farmers are working on a collaborative approach with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Local Lands Services, private landholders and mining companies to control dogs.
Mr Campbell runs 4000 sheep and 800 cattle, but with only sporadic attacks, he found it difficult to control dogs.
“We had trouble in our open country, but we had to get in to where the dogs were living to control them.
“We gave Ben access to the properties. He knew where the dogs were coming from and their route to our place.”
Mr Campbell said a shift away from sheep by some landholders had made it difficult for others.
“When we took over ‘Tunbridge’ in 2006 there was sheep between us and the (national) parks.
“With people making those management decisions, going out of sheep, it means someone’s still getting hit – the dogs just move to the next property.”
“The dogs don’t worry about who owns the country, so if you’ve got dogs, you need to report them so the LLS can identify a hotspot and do something about them.”