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Work under way to bridge 32km gap in NSW dog fence – but ecologists say it should be taken down
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Work under way to bridge 32km gap in NSW dog fence – but ecologists say it should be taken down

In the far-western reaches of New South Wales, the world’s longest fence tracks through the red dirt making a cartographically straight path along state borders.

The 5,614km fence starts in South Australia, where it’s called the dog fence, and joins the NSW border near Broken Hill, where it becomes that state’s responsibility and is called the wild dog fence. At Cameron Corner it veers north into Queensland and becomes the wild dog barrier fence. It follows the route set out in the 1940s by the old dingo fence, used to keep dingoes out of remote grazing land to the west and prime agricultural country in Queensland’s Darling Downs.

For farmers it has become part of the landscape, a key plank in protecting livestock against dingoes and wild dogs. But ecologists say the fence is a colonial legacy that is doing more harm than good.

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In a report presented to the lands minister, Steve Kamper, in March, the board chair, Andrew Bell, said fewer than 10 wild dogs were reported outside the fence, with a full inspection of the NSW side of the fence completed and shown to be in “very good order”.

Maintaining the fence along the NSW side is managed by a team of 13 permanent staff who manage sections of the fence between 60km and 100km, undertaking inspections each Monday and Friday. Workers are paid between $26 and $31 an hour with accommodation provided, according to a job listing.

Gerard Glover runs sheep and cattle on a pastoral lease near Brewarrina in north-western NSW.

“In springtime, or straight after rain, it’s beautiful country – the vastness catches people,” he says. “It might be all scrubby on one side of a sand dune and you come over the top and it opens up into beautiful open country with flowers and native animals.”

Glover is the chair of the NSW Farmers western division council. His work takes him to towns right along the fence line, on properties so vast that “your nextdoor neighbour might be 50[km] away, or even 100”.

He says pastoralists along the fence line take other steps to control wild dogs but the dogs are “pretty organised”. “It’s very hard to set traps and just do work on your own property, because the dog might have moved next door with better pickings,” he says.

“You probably don’t realise how much you rely on the fence until there’s a problem. It’s always been there, I don’t think there would be too many people remembering before the dog fence.”

The NSW and SA governments last year committed to patching a 32km gap in the fence, just north of Broken Hill. The NSW MP Roy Butler, whose electorate of Barwon covers the vast western expanse of the state, says fixing the gap is the first step of a fence extension plan involving all three states that lie along the fence’s footprint.

“Once the fence is built, then in terms of alternative control measures, in terms of non-legal control, go ahead and look at what can be done,” he says.

‘A cultural barrier’

But researchers say extending the fence would be a “step backwards”.

“The dingo fence is not just a fence, it’s a cultural barrier,” says Justine Phillips, who completed her PhD on dingoes at the University of New England and is now an honorary research fellow with the University of Birmingham. “It was initially put up to fence off the waterholes and created a distinctive line in the landscape, where landowners could legally keep First Nations people off the land. It has a violent history and it hasn’t really been acknowledged in these terms.”

The fundamental disagreement between ecologists and farmers and governments over the fence extends to the terms used: the Department of Regional NSW defines “wild dog” as including dingoes, feral domestic dogs and hybrid descendants. Research by the University of NSW published in 2022 said most wild dogs killed in rural Australia are pure dingoes.

Dr Tom Newsome, a researcher at the University of Sydney’s global ecology lab, says that by shutting dingoes out, the barrier fence could provide unique insights into how they interact with the landscape.

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“Globally, when you look at what happens when you remove an apex predator, there are some negative effects on the ecosystem,” he says. “We have more herbivores, we have more invasive predators, localised extinctions, there’s a negative story around that.”

The barrier fence is about 2 metres high and dug 30cm underground, meaning it prevents the movement of a wide variety of animals, not just dingoes.

A section of Australia’s wild dog fenceView image in fullscreen

Newsome and his team are hoping to secure a section of land along the fence to conduct controlled experiments on returning dingoes to the region. But they are facing “political barriers”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Regional NSW says the fence is “one of a range of tools used in the fight against wild dogs and other biosecurity threats”.

A spokesperson for South Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regions says an estimated 20,000 sheep were lost each year before gaps in the fence were closed, and a further extension of the fence is supported.

“A combination of coordinated wild dog control methods … have driven the wild dog population to historic lows and enabled producers to restock sheep across more than 18,000 sq km of pastoral land,” they say.

Reintroducing dingoes could help smaller native species by reducing feral cat and fox numbers, the University of Sydney ecologist Prof Christopher Dickman says.

But that argument is unlikely to sway farmers, for whom the larger dingo is a bigger risk. The solution to that problem may lie in guardian dogs, Dickman says. Guardian dogs, like maremme, are routinely used to deter wolves, bears and coyote in the US.

“We’re just extending the situation and making it progressively worse by adding more fence additions and using cluster fences,” he says. “Large areas of neighbouring properties are now surrounding themselves with this very big fence and it’s just taking out all the old kangaroos, emus, all the dingoes and flogging [the land] to death with too many sheep. Just seems crazy.

“We cannot move beyond the mindset that the only good dingo is a dead dingo.”

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Source: theguardian.com