Murchison vermin cell a step in rebuilding Western Australia’s sheep and goat flock

The completion this month of the Murchison Regional Vermin Cell means 55 pastoral leases and 6.5 million ha are now enclosed with a wild dog proof vermin fence that over time will enable a return to small stock production.

The challenge now is for pastoralists and the Meekatharra Regional Biosecurity Association to work together to remove the wild dogs from within the cell and find ways to build smaller cells that work off the Vermin Cell Fence.

The final 285km leg joining the existing No 2 vermin fence and the WA state barrier fence was carried out by the Murchison Regional Vermin Council with $2.25 million in funding under the Federal Government’s Building Better Regions Project. An additional $750,000 was provided by the State Government and local governments. 

Murchison Regional Vermin Council chairman Jorgen Jensen said savings of $400,000 were expected on this project. 

An application has been lodged with Building Better Regions Fund to use the savings to upgrade 38km of the No 1 vermin fence in the northeast corner of the vermin cell to replace a flood prone section over the next six months. 

The length of fencing for the entire Murchison Region Vermin Cell is 1400km completed at a cost of $5.82 million with landholders and member Councils contributing financially or in-kind. 

Flow on effects include environmental and biodiversity benefits with the region supporting 36 threatened species and the prospect of native vegetation regeneration, reduction in soil loss and increased carrying capacity. 

Increased demand for livestock and transport, agricultural supplies, shearing contractors, both permanent and casual station labour will boost the profitability of local and regional businesses.

Mr Jensen said the completion of the Murchison vermin cell would enable wild dog numbers to be reduced to the point of having no significant impact on livestock, allowing stations to rebuild their small stock enterprises. 

“Pastoralists are acutely aware the completion of the cell will not result in wild dogs being reduced to insignificant numbers, but the solution requires the effective management of the parallel programs of strategic planning and monitoring, fencing, baiting, trapping and the implementation of new control technologies,” he said.

An economic study of pastoral businesses within the proposed cell in 2012 showed the profitability of the stations had been in steady decline over the previous decade, the same period which had seen an explosion in wild dog numbers and attacks on livestock. Between 2000 and 2012 return on assets fell from 7.5 to -7.1 per cent despite significant improvements in commodity prices. 

Pastoralists reported wild dogs impacting their Merino enterprises in the order of 40 to 75 per cent of the calculated deaths, causing a reduction in lambing of 30-60 per cent, and wool cuts by 20 per cent.

The average annual loss due to wild dog attacks per property was $90,490 and 55 per cent had ceased to run sheep due to predation. 

Mid West Development Commission acting chief executive officer Anne Finlay said the completion of the Murchison Regional Vermin Cell marked an important milestone in combating wild dogs and in rebuilding a sheep industry in the region.

“Livestock prices have skyrocketed and restoring small stock to the southern rangelands as an income source for local pastoralists will drive diversification across the region, creating new opportunities for shearers, livestock transporters and local contractors,” Ms Finlay said.

“The MRV Cell project demonstrates the benefits to industry and regional communities that result from strong collaboration with industry, state and federal governments and other stakeholders.”

For cattle producer and former Mt Magnet shire president Ashley Dowden, the project’s completion has been the culmination of two decades of lobbying for exclusion fencing to join up with the state barrier fence.

Initial funding was received under Royalties for Regions and Mid West Development Commission to start a 180km section but no further funding was forthcoming.

“We kept fighting and got all those inside the cell to agree to contribute, all the shires on board and willing to contribute and used that funding to leverage an application for a federal capacity building grant,” Mr Dowden said.

Although the grant application failed, Jorgen Jensen, as Mt Magnet’s newly elected president, continued to successfully push the for the project to become fully funded.

A former member of the WA Wild Dog Action Group, Mr Dowden took on the project coordination role to supervise and manage fencing contractors, and clearing and materials tenders.

In the meantime, wild dogs had almost wiped out his own pastoral enterprise, forcing a transition from sheep and goats to cattle from 2008 onwards.

“We had been running 10,000 Merinos and selling 3000-4000 goats annually – today there is literally two properties in that area running small stock and they have built their own exclusion fences,” he said.

“Pretty much the small stock industry has been wiped out and there has been a huge exodus of families and long-term contract musterers.”

He said the loss of small stock had been a massive economic hit to the shires of Mt Magnet, Yalgoo, Cue, Sandstone and Meekatharra.

“When people went out of sheep and goats they worked off-farm and to this day more than half of the properties have not got stock on them – gone are the fencing contractors, livestock transporters, mustering contractors, shearing and crutching teams who had contributed significantly to the local economies.

“The reduction in services we have seen in the last 10 to 15 years is significant – we went from three to two pubs in Mt Magnet and two roadhouses to one – these little towns almost died.”

Optimism is returning around restocking with sheep and goats but the wild dogs remain a threat with eradication still four to five years away.

Baiting and trapping has been stepped up with pastoralists reporting a significant reduction in dog tracks and stock kills over the past six months.

“Getting the wild dogs down to a point where pastoralists can return to small stock is now the primary objective and after that maintaining the numbers – I doubt we will ever eradicate wild dogs, there will always be breaches of the fence from storms,” Mr Dowden said.

“If we can get those incursions down to an odd dog here and there, it becomes manageable to run small stock.”

National Wild Dog Management Coordinator Greg Mifsud assisted the Meekatharra RBG in developing their wild dog management plan based on the principles of nil-tenure approach advocated in the National Wild Dog Action Plan.

“We have held numerous field days and capacity building events in the region as discussions around establishing an exclusion fence took place,” Mr Mifsud.