I’m sitting at a table on a farmhouse verandah at Bungwahl on a warm and sunny winter’s day.
The farm, Burraduc Buffalo Farm, is owned and run by Elena and Andrei Swegen. We’re having a simple yet divine lunch featuring products of the farm – handmade artisan cheeses made the Italian way from the milk the farm’s buffaloes produce.
Sitting with us around the table are a young farming couple from Dubbo, a woman from Wingham who is an earth warrior, and John Williams, a filmmaker from the USA. Neither the young couple nor the Wingham woman wish to be named in this story for fear of reprisal, as the subject being discussed is highly controversial.
What they are talking about is dingoes, wild dogs and predator friendly farming.
John Williams is in Australia filming for a documentary he is making on dingoes, titled Predator, Pest, Pet. John is no stranger to dingoes as he adopted two that now live at his wolf sanctuary in Oklahoma.
Watch Elena Swegen talking about dingoes and predator friendly farming:
He has come to film Elena and Burraduc Buffalo Farm, as Elena runs an ethical farm and is serious about protecting biodiversity.
Burraduc shares a border with a national park that houses dingoes.
“There are no pigs in the national park just across the hill. There are no deer, there are no dogs, no goats, no wild cats there are just a few wallabies and ‘roos,” Andrei says.
“And it’s all thanks to the dingoes,” interjects Elena.
“Across the road where they are shooting – rabbits and everything.”
The dingo is Australia’s apex predator, meaning it is at the top of the food chain, and as such is vital for keeping the balance of ecosystems in check. Take the dingo out of the equation, and the balance is disrupted. The populations of smaller predators, particularly introduced ones, and grass-eating animals explode when the top order regulator of the ecosystem is taken out.
In 2014 the Australian newspaper wrote that a report in the Science journal stated the dingo was one of the world’s seven top order predators who’s removal from the food chain was known to cause a domino effect, along with wolves, to which the dingoes are more closely related than they are dogs.
We never see any rabbits or kangaroos or foxes and attribute that to the dingoes being around.Elena Swegen
“Other areas we farmed in, we were in the areas where dingoes were continuously persecuted, so we had the effect that the dingoes were not there and we had a lot of foxes everywhere, and wild cats and grass-eating animals eating our pastures. That’s in the areas where the dingoes were already eliminated,” Elena says.
“When we came here there are healthy packs of dingoes living in the national parks – we see them occasionally. They don’t disturb us, they’re very shy, and they don’t do much damage, if we have our livestock guardian dogs protecting the territory. And we never see any rabbits or kangaroos or foxes and attribute that to the dingoes being around.”
The subject of dingoes splits people into two complete diametrical camps – those who think “the only good dingo is a dead dingo” and want to eliminate the species, and those who are passionate about conserving the animal. Everyone around the table is in the latter camp.
“We don’t want to kill dingoes because they are looking after our pastures and making it possible for us to have fresh grass through the year. The dingoes are looking after other grass eating animals so we don’t have to share with the kangaroos and rabbits and other grass eating animals,” Elena explains.
All six are vehemently against the use of 1080 poison as a method of control for any animals. Even National Parks employees who use the baits admit it is an inhumane, cruel and horrible way for the animals to die. And all six say there is no need to be shooting or poisoning the dingoes. There are other alternatives for farmers.
Watch Elena Swegen being interviewed by John Williams about her livestock guardian dogs:
The Swegels have two Central Asian shepherd dogs guarding their livestock. The Dubbo couple have an Anatolian shepherd, and are at the Swegel’s to purchase one of their pups.
Both breeds are guardian livestock dogs that originated in Europe – the Central Asian in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan,and Afghanistan, and the Anatolian in Turkey. Both breeds live with the livestock they protect.
“We like to have the dogs present as much as possible when the animals are being born because that way, for some reason, they feel connected straight away and they become very important to them – they bond on the spot,” Elena says.
The dogs see the animals they are protecting as their family, and are very territorial. They are big dogs, and can do a lot of damage to an animal invading their territory – domestic and feral dogs included. Dingoes, however, respect the guardian dogs and keep their distance.
Elena believes that livestock guardian dogs should not be desexed. With an entire male and a female dog guarding the livestock, the dingoes are very aware that there is another ‘pack’ with the same sort of family structure around, and understand they are not to enter the guardian dogs’ territory.
“Neutered dogs are food for dingoes because they don’t smell right,” Elena explains.
Neutered dogs are food for dingoes because they don’t smell right.Elena Swegen
Elena breeds her pair to sell the resulting puppies to other farmers, like the young couple from Dubbo.
The Dubbo couple also use invisible fencing on their property, to protect the dogs that are protecting the livestock. The dogs wear collars that will emit a shock if the dogs get too close to the perimeter, ensuring they don’t escape onto the road or onto other people’s properties.
Elena is also considering this option, as she has previously lost one of her dogs to being hit by a car.
I ask about the cost of these protections, and the girl from Dubbo tells me it cost them around $2500 to ‘fence’ their 50 acre property.
“Five cows will pay for it. If you lose five cows to dogs, there’s the cost of the invisible fence,” she says.
“When the farmers complain about losing their livestock and calculate their losses, if you look at the figures, it’s very comparable to doing this once off investment of good fencing and putting good working dogs in,” Elena says.
It’s kind of a dichotomy. They’re highly regulated to leave the country, but yet they’re a ‘pest’ species and killed.US documentary maker, John Williams
“The farmers put losses of 30 to 50 per cent for the lambs in the lambing season. If they had proper fences they could put livestock guardian dogs in and it would stop. There are studies and confirmed figures that the losses stop – from like 50 per cent losses down to one per cent.“
And there would be no need to go to war on the dingo population.
The NSW Office of Environment and Health states on their website, “All native birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (except the dingo) are protected in NSW.
While it is not protected in NSW, the dingo is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the world's most comprehensive list of conservation status of biological species, as vulnerable.
And while the dingo is recognised as a native animal, it is also classified as a wild dog by NSW OEH.
“Wild dog refers to any dog living in the wild, including feral dogs, dingoes, and hybrids of the two. As a result, they have been declared a pest under the Rural Lands Protection Act 1998,” the site says.
The girl from Dubbo doesn’t understand why.
“Here they call them feral dogs, but in other countries [apex predators] are wildlife. It’s weird that Australia won’t really recognise that and other countries do” she says.
John Williams agrees. “It’s kind of a dichotomy. They’re highly regulated to leave the country, but yet they’re a ‘pest’ species and killed.”