The secret of kicking goals in community engagement on predator management

The NSW Northern Tablelands boasts some of the most rugged terrain in the state but is kicking goals when it comes to community and landholder engagement in a nil-tenure approach to wild dog control.

The National Wild Dog Action Plan took a deep dive with Northern Tablelands Local Land Services General Manager Paul Hutchings to find out the secret behind the success of the coordinated control programs.

A total of 40 wild dog management plans have been developed across 3 million hectares – up from 2.5 million in 2019 – involving 2500 landholders committed to a shared vision.

Ninety-two pest animal control groups target fox, wild dog, feral pig and feral deer in areas of existing and new activity, with more than 450 landholders alone involved in aerial baiting programs.

Last financial year, 64 community meetings brought producers and stakeholders together to instil a shared commitment for collective action around coordinated control programs for wild dogs, foxes, feral pig and deer. 

“These meetings bring land managers together to not only talk about our planned aerial and ground baiting programs to ensure they have input to where bait lines are laid, but also we invest in those groups through the National Landcare Program or LLS pest levy funding, so they have funds to engage trappers or purchase tools such as canid pest ejectors,” Mr Hutchings said.

“This gives the group ownership and the resources so they can make sure they maintain the capability of wild dog control.

“Our aerial baiting program alone costs $300,000 per year, excluding staff time, so having the shared funding from government ensures all stakeholders are working together. 

“We have agreed management plans with the wild dog associations so they can outline the expectations of all parties – Local Land Services, Forest Corp, National Parks and Wildlife Service and private landholders.”

Mr Hutchings paid tribute to the work done by Centre for Invasive Species Solutions North East NSW Wild Dog Facilitator David Worsley.

According to annual land and stock returns, the Northern Tablelands has among the highest livestock carrying capacities of any region in NSW. It also harbours a significant pest animal population with plentiful habitat and food sources.

“Not only is it rugged terrain in parts of the region, but we have a lot of public land, national park and forest corporation estate – much of it is inaccessible country, whether that is freehold or public land creating connection to the coast allowing the migration of wild dogs between the two areas,” Mr Hutchings said.

Last year, Northern Tablelands Local Land Services had 480 land managers involved in wild dog ground baiting programs and 883 in aerial feral pest control programs. 

“Wild dogs have been in this part of the world for a long time with more reports of activity in the western falls country than five or 10 years ago,” Mr Hutchings said. 

“However, we can’t confirm if that is people’s awareness of the value of reporting and working with Local Land Services or if it is genuinely new wild dog activity.

“It’s that fine line between more awareness around services to support people dealing with wild dogs versus actual wild dog activity and the change around enterprises from cattle to sheep.”

The model NSW Local Land Services uses is based on strategic baiting and suppression of wild dogs.

 “We know it makes a difference in terms of dog and fox numbers. Where we have done studies around Guy Fawkes National Park, the quoll populations in areas of long-term aerial baiting are greater and the fox populations are lower,” Mr Hutchings said.

“Landholder reporting is an important part of intervention and the reactive programs to back up the proactive or strategic programs.

“The outcome is to protect agriculture industries and the environment from wild dogs – it’s not about dogs hanging in a tree.”

Baiting programs are carried out each autumn and every few years in spring. 

Mr Hutchings said there was a correlation between bait deployment and coordinated programs, and a reduction in predation.

“When looking at trends, there is no doubt the more we bait, the greater reduction in predation reports.”

A new bait shed at Inverell has enabled Local Land Services to more effectively provide a service to landholders with increased space for equipment storage and a large freezer for baits.

The Glen Innes bait shed facility is also being upgraded with a new cool room and larger footprint for an improved service. 

Northern Tablelands Local Land Services Board Chairman Grahame Marriott shone a light on the extent and complexity of the wild dog control program in the region.

“There is meticulous planning, mapping, baiting precision and engagement with landholders and community. There are so many people working together to make these wild dog control programs an outstanding success,” Mr Marriott said. 

“It is a great demonstration of a coordinated community program with landholders at the centre.

“The National Wild Dog Action Plan couldn’t be delivered without the level of community support and coordination and there are significant in-kind and financial contributions from the Wild Dog Control Associations and other government agencies. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of the work the Local Land Services team do to coordinate these programs – there are just so many benefits across the region to the agriculture sector, the environment and community.”

Paul Hutchings said the motivations and challenges associated with removing wild dogs from areas was having a shared commitment, or land managers being involved, engaged and willing to work in a coordinated manner.

“That’s where the group approach is really important – it becomes a challenge with absentee landholders but for the most part it is having the time and resources to support people in a coordinated approach.

“We have a lot of landholder volunteers and government employees involved in this process, so it is very much about bringing people together to make it happen – less about the technical side and more about the social aspect.

“People who have experienced direct predation are keen to be involved and make things happen, but it is challenge involve those people who either run cattle, don’t see as many impacts from wild dogs or live further away from the area.

“There is also increasing concern around 1080 use and the role of wild dogs or dingoes.”

Northern Tablelands Local Land Services use a neighbour notification process before aerial baiting is carried out.

“We send out over 1200 neighbour notification letters to landowners within 1km of the proposed bait line and that generates conversations, enabling Local Land Services to engage with those people,” Mr Hutchings said. 

“For the most part we receive really strong support for coordinated wild dog control.”

Mr Hutchings said a tenure-neutral approach to wild dog management was important to success.

“Forest Corporation of NSW contribute to the program costs, allowing access to their estate for aerial baiting, while National Parks and Wildlife Service coordinate with Local Land Services to bait on freehold and public land. 

“All control work is scheduled at essentially the same time to achieve the maximum effect on the wild dog population. 

“The national approach under the National Wild Dog Action Plan is really important as we have the commitment backing us, plus the resources and knowledge of techniques and programs.

“The Plan is a great source of information, advocacy and point of reference that wild dogs are on the national agenda. It does help ensure we have lessons, issues and information from different parts of Australia available for sharing.

“We can tap into the knowledge base of Greg Mifsud (National Wild Dog Management Coordinator) and NE Wild Dog Coordinator David Worsley as needed.”

Mr Hutchings paid tribute to Mr Worlsey for his continued support of community led management groups across the Northern Tablelands and north east NSW, with over 40 wild dog management plans signed and delivered across the region. 

He said Mr Worlsey had worked closely with Local Land Services staff to assist with the planning and delivery of one of the largest aerial and ground baiting programs in the state.

“The 2022 autumn program involved 396 landholders, 24 state forest areas, 3434km of aerial bait lines and combined (aerial and ground) 137,381 baits in 2021, just within the Northern Tablelands Local Land Services region alone.

Feedback is gathered at the community meetings before the proposed baiting programs and afterwards to give an after-action review.

“We debrief on the key issues such as logistics, weather, bait preparation and quality,” Mr Hutchings said.

“During programs there are daily updates so there is an opportunity for live, on-the-spot feedback, and at the end for review and continuous improvement.”

Mr Hutchings said non-lethal tools such as exclusion fencing were also used by regional landholders, while Local Land Services had worked with Walcha Council on a barrier fence.

“In what has also been a fantastic example of cooperation between organisations, the NE NSW Wild Dog Coordinator also helped Walcha Shire Council to rebuild the Moona-Winterbourne wild dog fence.

“Barrier fencing is a potential tool we are testing and we had a consultant evaluate the economic viability of wild dog exclusion fencing in the Walcha area to see if the lessons from it could be transferred elsewhere.

“There are challenges in terms of maintenance and accountability around fences to ensure they are dog proof.

“There is no doubt wild dog predation has such a negative effect on people’s mental health. The economic cost is one thing but the uncertainty, the lack of control and the visual effect of seeing your animals torn apart is very hard.

“We cannot underestimate the mental impacts on some people particularly when it combines with other factors like drought and bushfire. 

“The group approach provides a peer network of emotional support while the industry scale adds another level. There is no doubt having people who understand what you are going through is critical and that group environment is a good forum for shared support.”

To view a case study on coordinated control programs click here.