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Want dingoes to leave people alone? Cut the junk food

Dingoes are back in the news, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott raising concerns on ABC radio last week about dingoes in drought-hit areas of Queensland and New South Wales: I’d learnt some years ago on…

A dingo in the wild. Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre

Dingoes are back in the news, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott raising concerns on ABC radio last week about dingoes in drought-hit areas of Queensland and New South Wales:

I’d learnt some years ago on my Pollie Pedal bike ride that wild dogs were a difficulty in the high country of Victoria, but I now discover that this is a much more widespread problem.

The federal government is close to announcing a new assistance package to help drought-struck areas. Given the Prime Minister’s unprompted remarks, there’s a chance that extra measures to control dingoes will be part of that package.

Where dingoes are found and are most abundant around Australia. Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre

Queensland and NSW has been particularly hard-hit by rainfall shortages in the past 18 months. Bureau of Meteorology

It would be an understandable move, given that dingoes are synonymous with livestock predation and come into conflict with people around some tourist and mining activities.

But while culling to control dingo numbers is one management option, there are other ways to lessen the impacts of dingoes on humans.

Dingoes are opportunistic predators that hunt a wide variety of prey. Consequently, they are especially likely to consume abundant food items. While in many cases this food is likely to be fauna, it can equally be food waste provided by people.

Our research suggests that waste food can be a key resource for dingoes, that has dramatic impacts on the ecology and behaviour of dingo populations. Further, it seems this food subsidy can escalate conflicts between humans and dingoes in all kinds of settings, including on farms, at mines and at tourist attractions.

How do humans change dingoes' behaviour?

In the Tanami Desert in northern Australia, we compared dingo populations in areas with and without human-provided food. The results demonstrated that access to this food, scavenged from unfenced rubbish tips, altered the diet, weight, movement and social behaviour of dingoes.

Like many people, dingoes readily opt for an easy take-away meal. Discarded food scraps comprised 60-70% of the diet of dingoes living close to a rubbish tip, whilst further away, reptiles, especially blue-tongues and goannas, were dingoes’ primary prey.

Dingoes scavenging at a rubbish tip.

Our most recent study, which has just been published in the Journal of Mammalogy, confirmed that the eating habits of dingoes around the tip were similar to free-roaming domestic dogs in a nearby township. This is akin to dingoes acting just like man’s best friend.

Eating human-provided food scraps also had consequences for dingoes’ weights. As with over-consumption of other “junk” foods, they got fat: animals living close to the tip were 20% larger than their desert-living counter-parts. Further, these labrador-like dingoes moved only about half as much as dingoes in other areas. One dingo that ate food scraps had a home range size of only two square kilometres. This is dramatically smaller than another dingo, well away from human-provided food, which ranged over 2000 square kilometres. With food provided daily at the tip, dingoes didn’t need to roam over large areas hunting prey.

Contrasting dingo movements: the lines represent movement paths and the circle represents the main area of occupancy. Thomas Newsome, CC BY-NC-ND

The reduced dingo movements were also associated with drastically altered social behaviour. Ordinarily, dingoes maintain small family groups and will actively defend their territories to ensure they have access to food and water. Every day at the tip, where there was regularly sufficient food for at least 225 dingoes, we observed 50 to 100 individuals. From the DNA samples we collected from some of the dingoes using the tip, it was apparent that a group of at least 55 closely related individuals were living close by; a five- to ten-fold increase on typical dingo family size. Despite this, little aggression was observed, even towards dingoes visiting from away.

As well as changing the size and behaviour of dingoes, people appear to have also compromised the genetic purity of this remote population. We observed higher rates of cross-breeding between dingoes and domestic dogs around the facility, suggesting it might have been easier for domestic dogs to infiltrate dingo society where food was abundant.

Cutting down on conflict

Our key point is that access to easily available food appeared to drastically alter the way dingoes live and behave. And that could alter how dingoes interact with other predators and prey.

That could have important knock-on effects, because dingoes can help the environment and humans by suppressing overabundant animals that they prey on, including emus and kangaroos and possibly goats and rabbits. In some situations, they may even suppress smaller predators in their area, such as foxes and cats.

Our research found that when humans make food too easily available, it appeared to have mostly negative consequences. That includes sustaining and increasing dingo populations to unnaturally high levels - potentially leading to more conflict with humans.

An example of a properly built predator-proof fence at a rubbish facility. Thomas Newsome, CC BY-NC-ND

Our findings are important given that people are increasingly making it easier for dingoes to eat our food scraps. Rubbish tips at mine sites, townships, remote communities and tourist areas throughout Australia are often left unfenced, or so poorly fenced that dingoes can freely access food.

Fortunately, addressing this problem is remarkably simple. At large industrial facilities (like mine sites), predator proof fences can be erected around food resources, such as rubbish tips.

At tourist facilities, including campgrounds and picnic areas, predator-proof containers for the storage of food and rubbish will help.

A predator-proof storage container (with bear-proof doors) installed in Yosemite National Park in the US. People and bears co-exist at Yosemite without the need for fencing around the camp ground. Thomas Newsome, CC BY-NC-ND

Of course, it would be ideal – and cheaper – if people would simply remove the waste they generate. Doing so would reduce the need for intensive, costly and often controversial management, such as culling or excluding dingoes, to ensure human safety.

Dingoes around a cattle carcass in Ravenshoe QLD. Carcasses attract a plethora of wildlife including dingoes. Graham Wienert and Invasive Animals CRC

Although it is difficult to deal with carcasses in pastoral operations, it is worth highlighting that these provide easy, take-away meals for dingoes. Similarly, dumping homestead food waste and carcasses in poorly constructed tips is an open invitation to enterprising predators.

Better and more consistent management of food scraps would contribute to a reduction in human-dingo conflict. It may even decrease rates of cross-breeding between dingoes and domestic dogs, a process that may permanently change the characteristics of Australia’s dingo.

Importantly, removing human food would enable the dingo to fulfil its natural ecological roles, including keeping a check on other animals like kangaroos. In the long-run, that will create benefits for all of us – including farmers.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Phil Dolan

    Viticulturist

    It has always fascinated me. We can produce Einstein, Newton, Mandela and Gandhi and yet we piss in the well.

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  2. Gil Thorncraft

    Concerned World Citizen

    Once again we, as a human animal, show that what we touch and interfere with, we stuff up.

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  3. Comment removed by moderator.

  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    It is not just in Victorian or other states high country or further outback that dingoes/wild dogs are a problem either and just like food scraps, people also discard dogs or otherwise care for them so little they start straying.
    Our small Queensland coastal town had a wild dog problem emerging and their closeness to a primary school saw the local council hire a dog trapper for a couple of weeks.
    It is usually council regulations that dogs are to be contained on a person's property but that does…

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  5. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    Dingoes, Foxes, wild dogs, Ibis, Ravens/Crows, Rats (no doubt more that could be added) all frequent areas where human food wastes are dumped. Foxes have been sighted getting into rubbish bins in Melbourne CBD. I believe the City of Melbourne is tackling that.

    Ideally we would discard less food but making it less accessible would be a good start.

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  6. Colin Samundsett

    retired BSurv

    Thanks Thomas - a chip off the old bloke; with a similar songline of the reality of human animal and other species place in nature. The more of it the better.

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  7. Colin Cook

    Scientist At Large

    Good luck getting people to take their rubbish home!

    I do agree that emulating the way in which the US and Canada deal with human-bear interactions would go a long way towards solving the problem. I've done a fair bit of bushwalking in the Canadian Rockies and the educational material readily available on food management when camping or walking in bear territory is very good. Mind you, the consequences of a mistake do tend to focus the mind fairly well!

    Besides dingoes, you could also mention other animals that have their behaviour altered by rubbish dumps and handouts at campgrounds. Goannas come to mind.

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  8. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    Prey competes with prey, not predators. If there is no rubbish dump some sort of balance is struck between dingoes and their prey because if dingoes drive down prey populations they will die of starvation or at least cut back their breeding.
    When a reliable source of garbage is added to the mix the dingoes can survive on this while driving other prey towards local extinction. What i really noticed on Frazer island was that there were plenty of dingoes and dingoe tracks and very little sign of anything else.

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  9. Brent Nicols

    logged in via email @yahoo.com

    For the record. The bear-proof containers do in fact work well in preventing bear access to foods. The containers do not necessarily prevent conflict as the bears readily seek out foodstuffs, or items that smell like food such as fruit scented soaps in vehicles. Break ins by bears results in over a million dollars US annually within Yosemite National Park.

    Some bears are so habituated that they have favorite models that they will intentionally break into just to have a look around. Still, the containers are better than nothing.

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  10. Neville Mattick
    Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    Having lost $33,000 worth of Sheep to Wild Dogs in the last twelve months I can speak with some experience.

    They do have Environmental benefits, pests that need long term control will be eliminated such as Feral Goats and Pigs.

    What we need is a solution to convince Graziers' to coalesce with the Dingo.

    The reader; Can you design a repellent to spray on Sheep (what say monthly) that will put the Dingo off the surplus killing?

    If technology can launch a plane in one country, carry out a strike in another thousands of kilometres away and return, with the crew in a ground based control centre; then I speculate that it is time for research from the reader to formulate a solution for the Grazier:Dingo clash.

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    1. Neville Mattick
      Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

      In reply to Colin Cook

      Hi Colin,

      Yes we have investigated them, however with the scale of landscape (tens if square kilometres) they run into a massive management headache in and of themselves.

      We do have guardian animals in all mobs and they are learning on the job by adapting to the predator of the flock they watch over.

      As I see it unless research can develop a protective system for livestock to coalesce with the Dingo, sheep will be eliminated from the Australian Landscape as has been the case on a large scale since the early nineties: http://ab.co/1esJKQv

      I know it can be done, if mankind has been to the Moon and back this, then isn't rocket Science.

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    2. Colin Cook

      Scientist At Large

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      Yes, daily feeding of dogs could be a PITA on such a large territory. What guardian animals are you trying? There's a few alternatives (http://theochreproject.com/alt.html or http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/178908/guard-animals.pdf), so I suppose one that could feed itself by grazing would be the best.

      A chemical deterrent would be difficult to develop: it would have to be repellent to the dogs, but cause no harm to the sheep or leave no problematic residues in the meat or wool.

      Maybe we should ask the Japanese to develop a robot for us?

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    3. Neville Mattick
      Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

      In reply to Colin Cook

      Hi Colin, yes the socialisation of the Maremma's with our pack of seven Kelpies' is another factor to manage.

      We have $7,000 worth of Alpaca's (or as a NZ expressed "elpeckers") and they are adaptive to the threat. As most of the predation occurs at 02:30 ~ 05:30H daily it is hard to assess what they have saved so far.

      I have monitored (fixed PIR cameras) carcases in the landscape here and none has ever had Wild Dogs feed on it, they go over to the mob of Sheep and run down fresh ones…

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    4. Colin Cook

      Scientist At Large

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      Neville,

      I have Dorpers myself, mainly because we wanted a low maintenance breed. But,as a side benefit, the predation rate from foxes is very low. The lambs are born with "attitude", and as I have observed while rounding them with a ute, can run like the clappers even at 2 weeks of age. Hopefully they'll be a solution, even if partly, to your dingo problem. I suspect that more farmers will have to adapt their enterprises to cope with the local environment, as control options are just getting too expensive and tied up with permits and regulations to maintain indefinitely.

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    5. Sandor von Kontz

      farmer

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      Hi Nevil, since I introduced Maremmas to our herd I did not have one predation since. ( 5 years ) There are self feeders for the dogs which are not accessible to sheep, if they develope a taste for the dog food, and so far I do not have any problem with my working dogs and the Maremmas. They only see each other at mustering time. The advantage of Maremmas over all the other guardian animals is, they don't have to be there to defend an attacked sheep. They mark and guard their territory (paddock) and no self respecting dingo/wild dog will enter. Size might be a problem, my propert is only 1000ac but I know of people who run tens of Maremmas on their big properties. As a plus, they keep the kangaroos out of my small paddocks too. Less grazing pressure less fence damage.

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    6. Neville Mattick
      Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

      In reply to Sandor von Kontz

      Thank you Sandor, I agree the Maremma's would be effective, I have read and viewed quite some material on them.

      The vast problem we face (one that has been dealt with by the U.S. system) is the sheer cost of control.

      Ok Abbott goes out and people report so he throws a bit of money at the problem in certain areas - Drought declared I suppose.

      A recent SBS Dateline ( http://bit.ly/1gZSXOx ) report from the U.S.on the return of the Wolf, which told of the Government compensation for losses attributed to native dogs, none - here, hung out to dry - methinks.

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    7. Sandor von Kontz

      farmer

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      our dog costs us about $ 20 a month that includes worming etc.

      I have seen the SBS report and was sort of involved in the reintrooduction of Wolf and Lynx in Switzerland. The predation is minimal. I am convinced, that a proper control of Dingoes and a healthy population of them is the best outcome for everyone.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbbtziC2wW4
      a very worth while contribution to the debate.

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    8. Scott Morris

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Sandor von Kontz

      I'm concerned that there's implications in these comments that wild dogs and dingoes are responsible for the decline in sheep numbers in Australia. It's an entirely unscientific and unsupported remark which negates all other influences, such as:

      * Drought cycles - unless the farmers in Qld are making a cash grab?
      * Decline in the demand for wool from Australia resulting in reduced profit and closure of farms due to sale loss
      * Decline in demand for lamb and sheep meat products locally
      * The…

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  11. Colin Cook

    Scientist At Large

    A late entry for this discussion, but some new research has been publicised.

    http://lifescientist.com.au/content/life-sciences/news/a-balanced-ecosystem-needs-apex-predators-1123007087

    The researchers found that loss of dingoes after baiting was associated with greater activity by foxes, which prey on small marsupials and native rodents, such as marsupial mice, bandicoots and native rodents. The number of kangaroos and wallabies also increased when dingoes were poisoned. Grazing by these herbivores reduces the density of the understorey vegetation in which the small ground-dwelling mammals live.

    "Dingoes should not be poisoned if we want to halt the loss of mammal biodiversity in Australia. We need to develop strategies to maintain the balance of nature by keeping dingoes in the bush, while minimising their impacts on livestock," said Dr Mike Letnic, an ARC Future Fellow in the Centre for Ecosystem Science in the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

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