The much-maligned dingo has emerged as an unlikely hero in a study of the relationship between bushfires and feral pests.
A team from Charles Sturt University and Deakin University focused on the arid Mallee region of north-western Victoria to discover how foxes, cats and other pests capitalised on burnt-off areas in their pursuit of native wildlife.
“A big part of the study was looking at how introduced predators actually interact with fire,” said Associate Professor Dale Nimmo.
“There’s this idea that these predators are taking advantage of burnt areas, getting into them when all the vegetation’s gone after fire, and just hunting all the native mammals towards extinction,” he said.
To test the theory, Professor Nimmo from CSU, along with Dr Euan Ritchie and William Geary from Deakin University, studied 21 landscapes using camera traps to record animal movement.
The research revealed a complex and surprising food chain where dingoes became guardian angels for many of Australia’s more vulnerable species.
Dingo has an interesting role in Australia
“The big finding of the study was that foxes were actually avoiding recently burned areas in these semi-arid landscapes, and the reason was because of the higher abundance of dingoes,” Professor Nimmo said.
“You have a situation where dingoes are creating a refuge for native wildlife, particularly smaller mammals that are the preferred prey of foxes and cats, by basically selecting these landscapes so they can hunt kangaroos more effectively.”
Professor Nimmo said the dingo’s reputation as a feared hunter was well deserved, but its classification as a pest ignored the benefits the dingo brings to the Australian landscape.
“The dingo has a really interesting role in Australia, because, unlike other parts of the world, we only have one large apex terrestrial predator,” he said.
“Of course, there’s livestock conflict related to that predator, but there’s more and more evidence that the species also performs a positive function for the ecosystem.
“One of those functions that we’ve been seeing is that when you have larger, more stable populations of dingoes, you often end up with fewer foxes and fewer cats as well, because dingoes hunt and kill these animals and their mere presence in the landscape creates what we call a ‘landscape of fear’.
“Foxes and cats are more wary when they’re in these landscapes, so they might be just as abundant but less active. That can have a positive effect on smaller mammals.”
Professor Nimmo said the research highlighted the importance of taking a more holistic view when it came to land management.
“You might burn a landscape for asset protection, or for some fire-diversity goal, but in doing that you might actually boost numbers of dingoes, which will create a problem for livestock owners.
Massive conflict between dingoes and livestock
“So you might put a bounty on dingoes, get their numbers down, and now you’ve got a fox problem, or a kangaroo problem, because dingoes suppress populations of kangaroo really effectively as well.
“So just recognising that all these parts are interlinked with each other means that we can more effectively think through the likely outcomes.”
Professor Nimmo said the research provided opportunity for landowners challenged by the problem of managing dingoes.
“There’s obviously a massive conflict between dingoes and livestock,” he said.
“There are different approaches that people around the world are using to try to overcome that, and Australia’s a long way behind other countries in that sense.
“We’re still of the view, I guess, that the best approach toward managing invasive species is to just kill them, apex predators in particular — get a gun or put some poison bait out and kill them.
“Other countries, particularly in Europe, where they’ve got many larger apex predators — grey wolves, lynx, bears — they’re looking at systems of coexistence.
“One of the keys to that is this idea of having ‘guardian animals’, like another breed of large dog that is bred for that purpose, or donkeys, or alpacas are used in some systems.
“Of course, it won’t be applicable to all landscapes, but we invest millions and millions of dollars on killing animals and putting up fences, so it would be interesting to at least trial the subsidisation of a guardian animals program for willing farmers who want to give it a try.”