Wild dogs cost sheep farmers millions in slaughtered livestock. Meet a government dog trapper fighting back.

By Alana Rosenbaum.

Wild dogs wreak havoc for sheep farmers

Sheep farmer Phillip Ried, with wild dogs trapped and killed on his property.
Credit: Simon Dallinger

In early June, Phillip Ried rounded up his lambs and did a quick head count. In all, there were 200 of them – 25 short. Something had been picking off his flock, and Ried, who farms 344 hectares in the Tallangatta Valley in north-eastern Victoria, had a fair idea what. He had seen a “big red dog” hanging around his property and found two dying lambs, bitten about the neck and flank. He gave the animals penicillin shots, but infection overcame them.

A few hours after the head count, Ried returned home from a night out to the sound of bleating. He changed into his work clothes and drove up to the paddock, where he found his sheep roving about, at a time when they were usually camped in a huddle. The big dog, he suspected, had spooked them, but it wasn’t until the next morning that the animal showed itself. Responding to the sound of “yipping and howling” at first light, Ried went outside with his shotgun and stood vigil behind a tree.

“He came along the track and he was looking at me and I leant the gun up against the tree and pulled the trigger. To my amazement he fell over.” The carcass now hangs by its hind legs from a tree at the edge of Ried’s property.

Wild dogs cost the nation $48 million and production losses afflict 66 per cent of landholders nationwide, according to official estimates. They have a taste for newborn lambs, but are also known to prey on calves. They are far more destructive than any other vertebrate pests, such as pigs and foxes, but no official estimates exist on how many roam the continent.

Last month, WoolProducers Australia published its National Wild Dog Action Plan, a document calling for states and territories to work together to control the pests, which live in packs of varying size. One of the report’s authors, Greg Mifsud, who is the government-appointed national wild dog facilitator, observes that the animals had resurfaced in areas where they had previously been eradicated, such as New England, north-eastern New South Wales and parts of southern and western Queensland. There have been new sightings of wild dogs on the outskirts of Brisbane and the North Coast of NSW.

Mifsud says changing agricultural methods – organic farming, for example, which bans the use of poisons for baiting – have produced a spike in wild dog populations.

The day that Ried shot the dog, he put a call through to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries and Wayne Gibbs was put on the case. Gibbs, one of 18 full-time doggers (known officially as wild dog controllers) working for the Victorian government, suspected that more than one dog had been preying on Ried’s flock. He began his assignment by laying six traps, evenly distributed across a seven-kilometre stretch of Tallangatta Valley, a few kilometres uphill from the killing site. Within a month he snared two wild dogs and, in the meantime, Ried shot a third on his property.

When I join Gibbs on a snowing Thursday morning, he is searching for traces of wild dog beyond his trap line. Hoping to pick up a scent, he lets his three hunting dogs, Arnold, Jack and Dudley, out of the back of the ute. They caper along, wagging their tails, sniffing and scratching, until they settle, all three of them, beside a tuft of scrub in the middle of the track.

The dogs can pinpoint many creatures, wild and domestic, and each elicits a different response. Gibbs says part of his job is to interpret his dogs’ behaviour and gauge exactly what it is they are smelling. Here, by the way the animals “zone in” on the scrub, Gibbs concludes they’re on the trail of a wild dog.

“Get in, quick!” he orders and the three dogs leap back into the ute. From the toolbox, he produces a trap, a steel contraption with a chain-link tail attached to a box spring.

Gibbs winds the chain around a metre-long log and secures it with a D-shackle. Beside the tuft of scrub, he digs a small, round hole with the claw of his hammer and beds the trap, concealing it beneath a thin layer of earth. He hides the log and chain under   a few handfuls of tussock and uses a stick to draw lines in a downward motion over the mound, simulating scratch marks. Gibbs’s final touch of subterfuge is to “freshen up” the scent that his dogs picked up. From a compartment at the side of his ute, he produces a Worcestershire sauce bottle that now contains the urine of a previous catch. He sprinkles a few drops on the scrub.

If all goes to plan, the scent will attract a wild dog, the trap’s rubber gums will snap above its foot and the log will snag as the animal tries to escape into the bush. The RSPCA supports the killing of non-indigenous wild dogs, but has called for the banning of such methods of entrapment, arguing that it’s cruel for an animal to be ensnared for more than a day.

As Gibbs works, his dogs look on from the back of the ute, sitting three in a row. Their backs are straight and ears thrust forward. “Why so eager?” I ask. Gibbs explains that when he snares a wild dog, he orders his own animals to track it. “ ‘Go get him,’ I say to them.” Dudley, a juvenile border collie cross “apprentice”, hears the explanatory command and takes it out of context. He leaps out of the back of the ute, while the two senior dogs remain motionless.

While domestic dogs have evolved to live with humans, wild ones have evolved to elude us. According to a 2011 study undertaken at the University of Western Australia, 96 to 99 per cent of wild dogs in north-east Victoria possess hybrid DNA of domestic dog and dingo.

Greg Ivone, the government’s area leader for wild dogs in north-east Victoria, cites cases of domestic dogs joining wild packs, only to return home injured. “The natural instinct of a wild dog is to be cunning, to not get hurt, to hunt. Domestic dogs won’t keep up, they won’t fit in the pecking order.”

Once, Ivone received a call from a man who removed a wild dog from a trap and took it home to domesticate. For three days, the animal hid under a car, until its would-be owner gave up and shot it.

Before he was a dogger, Gibbs, now in his early 40s and married with two teenage sons, floated from job to job, earning his living periodically as a labourer, a drover and a truck driver. The thought of working independently in the bush with his dogs appealed to him, so he knocked on the door of his local wild dog controller, introduced himself and asked if he could learn on the job.

Every Monday fortnight for the next seven years, Gibbs accompanied his mentor on rounds. In lieu of a salary, he received a thorough grounding in wild dog management, a job that encompasses tracking, trapping, baiting and advising farmers on preventive measures such as fencing.

There is also, according to Ivone, a pastoral side to eliminating wild dogs. A recent study by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Science compared the trauma levels of graziers menaced by wild dogs to those of Vietnam veterans. “Our guys come across farmers that just break down,” he says. “Our guys are not social workers, but they do a terrific job.”

Gibbs, for his part, finds the work rewarding and stimulating. Wild dogs, he says, are cunning, and he’s constantly “mixing it up” to attract them. Sometimes he’ll lace a trap with the urine of another pet dog, a bitch he keeps at home. Sometimes he’ll blow a cow horn to simulate a howl. But there are dogs, he says, that see through all his methods – they recognise his scent and know to avoid the trap lines.

The scent he picked up on the morning I joined him may well have come from such an animal. Gibbs had thought the dogs menacing Ried’s sheep had been caught, but now he wasn’t so certain. He’d wait about a week, see what the traps yielded and keep an ear out for reports of livestock killings. And if nothing materialised, he’d take it as a sign that Ried’s sheep were out of peril and move on.

Soon, he predicted, there’d be word of killings elsewhere, and he’d be dispatched to hunt a fresh pack. “Something will come up,” he says. “It always does.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "Dogs on the lamb".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Alana Rosenbaum is a Melbourne-based writer and video journalist.