Southern trees bear strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.*

These few chilling words by Abel Meeropol, made her own by Billie Holiday, came immediately to mind when I first saw these pictures posted on a Facebook page run by a mob called “Ringers From The Top End.”

This picture* from the Narbethong Road outside Blackall appeared first at the top of a May 2013 ABC Background Briefing program with the emotive title “The dogs that ate a sheep industry by Ian Townsend.

The central premise of Townsend’s piece was that:

Wild dogs are killing the wool industry in Queensland. The dingo fence is useless, poison baiting isn’t working and the law that says land owners must control wild dogs isn’t enforced. Now dog numbers have reached epidemic proportions.

Townsend provides a useful traverse of the issues facing pastoral enterprises in western Queensland in particular, including the effects of drought, the widespread shift towards cattle grazing from sheep, the effectiveness of 1080 baiting and of the utility of the dingo fence — currently being extended by the Queensland government — that once spread for thousands of kilometres across this country.

Perhaps most controversial — and least effective — of all is the legislative mandate contained in Queensland’s Land Protection (Pest and Stock Route Management) Act 2002 that requires landholders to take reasonable steps to kill all dogs — read dingoes — found on their land.

95 Destruction of particular dogs

(1) This section applies if an owner of land that is not in an urban district, or an authorised person, reasonably believes a dog on the land—

(a) is not under someone’s control; and

(b) is attacking, or is about to attack, stock on the land.

(2) The authorised person or owner may destroy the dog.

(3) Compensation is not payable for the destruction.

And there are those who can still find a way to turn a dollar out of biological ruin. Townsend spoke to one dingo shooter who in the previous year had “bagged more than 600 wild dogs. At $500 a scalp, he made over $300,000.”

But notwithstanding these pressures, the dingo prevails. Townsend noted the work of Biosecurity Queensland researcher Dr Lee Allen. Allen’s research indicated that control measures — particularly 1080 baiting — was working to promote that which it sought to control. Townsend here quotes from an ABC Radio Country Hour interview with Allen:

Lee Allen [archival]: No one was more surprised than I to get those results. What we have concluded from there is the impact of baiting on the social organisation of the dingoes creates a disturbance in there that when you control dingoes and you remove those you basically create a dispersal sink. You have young dispersing dingoes from usually pups from the previous year coming into that area and they don’t have the pack size or the hunting experience to be able to handle those larger prey, and so they are then left with the problem of how to feed themselves.

Ian Townsend: In other words, if you kill the older and more experienced dingoes by poisoning them, a few weeks later when the poison’s gone, young inexperienced dingoes can flood into the territory.

Lee Allen [archival]: And it’s basically getting a whole bunch of young teenagers together and they just get up to all sorts of strife and that’s when they start chasing calves and tearing ears and they get stuck into them.

Allen’s conclusions are supported by other research into the value of the kind of predator controls we’ve used in Australia for too long without — it seems — rigorous and holistic analysis of their effectiveness.

Arian Wallach is a research fellow at Charles Darwin University who conducts research that investigates the influence of large predators on biodiversity and population dynamics. Her research supports the idea that protecting dingoes is a powerful panacea for Australia’s biodiversity crisis. She has found that dingo sociality is an important factor contributing to top-down regulation potential, and that the pack — not the individual — is functionally the apex predator.

Wallach says that predator control fractures the dingo’s social-structure, and shifts ecosystems to bottom-up driven states that drive uncontrolled outbreaks of introduced mesopredators and herbivores. In a 2010 paper in Ecology Letters, Wallach concluded, in part, that:

Relaxation of control allows dingo populations to recover, leading to population control of mesopredators and generalist herbivores and an increase in small mammals (Red Lake). Sites that have been freed from predator control over an extended period of time may continue to improve in the absence of human intervention (Curdimurka).

On the other hand, conditions in even highly degraded sites can deteriorate further where predator control is continued (Nantawarrinna).

Wallach is the director of the Dingo for Biodiversity project that brings together ecologists and landowners to transition to predator-friendly management practices and monitor the ecological changes as dingo populations recover. The project “offers a new vision of conservation in which promoting dingoes replaces pest control for the enhancement of biodiversity.” Most interesting is the “predator-friendly pastoral project” that seeks to establish a national network of pastoralists that are choosing to favour of dingo protection rather than destruction.

Dingoes have for too long been demonised rather than recognised as an essential part of the Australian ecological mix and far too late are we even getting a sketch of the role of the Dingo in this country. The “War on the Dingo” approach to population ‘management’ is a punitive, uncoordinated, expensive and devastatingly ineffective folly. There are better ways of managing Dingoes in the landscape. We just haven’t worked out how to apply them yet.

You can read more about the Dingo for Biodiversity project at the programme’s website here. Thomas Newsome is an Australian researcher that has spent many years working on the Dingo and other large predators. You can see some of his valuable research here.

*Strange Fruit lyrics by Abel Meeropol © EMI Music Publishing. Sung by Billie Holiday.

* Photo by Robyn Adams.