The grandmother with a gun and a goal trying to protect WA’s pastoral industry
Summary: In the isolated outback of WA, Teen Ryan plays a lonely but integral role in trying to stop wild dogs attacking our livestock. The Government is also acting, but has it left it too late? Tony Barrass and photographer Daniel Wilkins head off-road to see the latest battle of the bush.....
TEEN Ryan is the last line of defence in the fight to stop the seemingly endless waves of wild dogs now flooding the vast rangelands of WA.
As one of only two professional doggers covering 37 per cent of the State’s 2.6 million square kilometres, the 52-year-old grandmother of seven knows the enormity of her task.
“We’ve got to get on top of this because the damage these animals have done so far will be nothing compared to what’s around the corner,” she said.
After a dog attack at a mine site in the Pilbara last month left 54-year-old FIFO worker Debbie Rundle with horrific injuries to her legs and arms, there are not too many who disagree.
A mixture of tight budgets, poor policy and an initial unwillingness by the industry to tackle the issue has created a monster that threatens hundreds of WA pastoral operations.
And if left unchallenged, it could be wild dogs — and not animal activists — that ultimately end the contentious live sheep export industry, according to livestock experts.
There are strategies in place: a wild dog action plan, formulated by the pastoral industry and various levels of government, land and aerial baiting programs, and upgraded maintenance to WA’s 1190km State Barrier Fence.
The McGowan Government has also pledged money for another eight doggers, a Murdoch University program to sterilise dogs that roam Aboriginal communities, and $2 million to start building more cell fences in four biosecurity areas across WA.
But the dog may have already bolted.
Ross Wood runs the Goldfields Nullarbor Rangelands Biosecurity Association.
Up until recently, he also ran Rawlinna Station, the biggest sheep operation in the country. He also employs Teen as a dogger.
He said up until the mid-1990s the Agriculture Protection Board doggers kept the animals as far east as possible where they found it hard to survive in the dry, barren Great Victorian and Little Sandy deserts.
When the APB rolled into the Department of Agriculture in an organisational shake-up under Richard Court’s government, the dogs got their tails up. Their nemesis — the doggers — were the first to go in the mandatory budget cuts that followed.
Unleashed from their sandy jail, the animals — a motley mix of dingo and discarded domestic dogs — headed west and on to pastoral leases. They then had access to water and food, particularly after good rainfall where kangaroos, rabbits, wombats and sheep were plentiful.
Their numbers started to explode. With the working dogs of the pastoralists often taking the baits that were meant for the dingo mongrels, they became, as Wood describes them, “just like terrorists, where once they get among us are very hard to weed out”.
Wild dogs are a threat to livestock in Ravensthorpe.Picture: Western Australian Agriculture Authority
The complexities of Native Title at that time only complicated matters; whose approval was needed to kill the wild animals? Whose land was it anyway?
“It wasn’t as though they were eating the sheep for food,” Wood said.
“It was a cumulative thing. The dogs were stopping the sheep lambing by walking among the ewes, so the ewes would walk away from their lambs, so they could not get big breeding numbers.
“That meant that they couldn’t replace their flocks, so gradually the flocks got older, and shrunk in size. It all just cascaded and fell off the cliff very quickly.”
By the turn of the century, the dogs were on the trot right across the State.
“We kept telling the Murchison people to watch out, they are coming and they all laughed as us,” Wood said. “Then Carnarvon said the same, ‘Don’t be silly’, they said.
“But tell me this; how many sheep stations are left up there now?”
Jorgen Jensen runs Yoweragabbie station, 30km south of Mt Magnet. Up until five years ago, it had been a merino sheep operation that had been in the family since 1963.
They used to run about 7000 sheep over the 100,000ha, an average-sized lease on the WA rangelands.
“By then we knew they were coming,” Jorgen said. “It was about 2007-08 and they were pretty easy to track. They came from the north and the east.”
The collapse of the wool price made his decision to go into cattle a little easier. He now runs about 800 head and goats as well, but it is tough, and the dogs are a constant reminder of the need for biosecurity cells fencing that can keep stock safe.
Paying for it is another thing.
His biosecurity group in Meekatharra is hoping to fence 50 properties covering more than 5 million hectares, but they are way short of their funding needed to build it. It is a long-term project but one that needs focus and much more State and Federal money.
“We co-ordinate three doggers on 100-day contracts, but it costs money and when these dogs are not being killed, they are breeding up big time,” Jensen said.
What particularly irks him is the thrill kill side of the slaughter. “I saw this nanny goat, she was quite fat, but dead for no other reason than the dog had run her to exhaustion,” he said.
Chris Patmore owns a number of properties, mainly sheep and wheat operations of about 10,000ha, in and around Perenjori and Eneabba.
“We had been told to brace for it (the dogs),” Patmore said. “We had been relying on the State Barrier Fence, but because of lack of maintenance that really wasn’t doing its job properly.
“We’ve got good doggers working for us, but they are pretty smart these animals. They are very cunning, human shy, and they are out there and have plenty of time on their hands.”
He said baiting and trapping often threw up good results.
“But at this stage we’re not winning the war,” he said.
The Central Wheatbelt Biosecurity Group needs about $1 million to build a dog-proof fence that could save the flocks, but is a long way from reaching that target.
“It costs around $8000 a kilometre to build one of these fences, so we’ve got a fair way to go,” Patmore said.
Dingo attack victim Deb Rundle with clinical nurse Melissa Ridley, after surgery at Royal Perth Hospital.Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian
According to Ryan, it’s money well spent.
She has been in “dog control” for about 18 years, doing it professionally for the past decade.
A farmer’s daughter from South Australia, Ryan learnt her craft from an Aboriginal called Danny Graham on Fraser Range station on the Nullarbor.
“He took me around, told me what to look for, how to set a trap, and it became a relatively easy part of the daily running of the station,” she said. “You’d set a trap, you’d get a dog, but then it became serious when we realised how many of them there were. They were everywhere.
“They were hitting us almost nightly. They weren’t killing the sheep for food, they were being mauled, leaving massive exposed wounds and puncture marks to their necks, and the sheep would then get infected and then you would find them dead in the paddock four or five days later.
“That went on for months and months. All dog bites get infected, and then the flies come. Often there’s no sign, sometimes a little puncture mark. That’s it. Then they wander off and die.”
Now based in Kalgoorlie, she travels the back blocks of WA for up to 10 days at a time, but baulks at any longer stints in bush.
She often sits with the sheep throughout the night — rain, hail or shine — because that’s when the dogs are the most active, from 4pm to daybreak.
“I’ve got a couple of 223s (Remington rifles), one that’s set up for day use and one that has a thermal scope for nights. Bolt action. They are my tools of trade, pretty much,” Ryan said.
“But that 10 days just about does me. Then I have to come home, watch some telly, do some washing, have a decent shower,” she laughed.
Most of her work is for different biosecurity groups on the Nullarbor and the southern part of WA.
She packs up her Toyota LandCruiser, loads up with 2000 to 3000 baits that have been injected with 1080, two rifles, a dozen or so traps, some strychnine and off she goes.
“We make our baits. We pay contractors to supply the meat and we inject the meat, and then dry them,” she said.
1080 fresh meat baits.Picture: Supplied
Once she takes out the cost of fuel, tyres, vehicle upkeep and the highest expense of all —insurance — it’s rarely enough to cover her expenses.
The strychnine is used on the dog trap that guarantees a humane death of any snared dog.
Once its paws are caught, the animal immediately puts its mouth to the jaws of the traps and gnaws away. Death comes quickly.
She uses a data logger device that “records every bait that I drop out on the ground, every dog shot, trap set, bait laid, stock attack, which is all recorded”.
For her own personal safety, she uses a spot tracker that keeps a digital read of where she is and where she has been.
She checks in twice a day by pressing an OK button (that works via satellite) to tell others she is fine and in no danger, as vehicle breakdowns and punctures are regular.
“But I’ve never felt threatened by the dogs because the interaction with humans out in the bush is minimal,” she said.
“They are just curious. If anything, they are quite indifferent.”
Ryan says the dogs she kills are getting bigger every year.
“There’s an alsatian-type breed getting around out there now, that’s a very heavy-set dog,” she said.
“The country’s good out there at the moment, so there’s a lot of food on the ground — wombats, rabbits, birds, that sort of stuff.”
She says 80km is not a big walk for a dog — “a stroll” — and they can get from desert country to the pastoral leases in a day or two.
“And then they find the water, and the ’roos, and they say, ‘This is not a bad place to stay’, and they pair up and then start another cycle a little bit closer to home,” she said. Breeding time is usually around April, and 63 days after they mate up, they drop their pups.
“Mum takes them out to teach them how to hunt around October, and then boots them out of home about eight weeks later,” Ryan said.
“That’s when we try to concentrate on baiting, the mums are hungry, the young pups are hungry, and you get some good results from strategic baiting around then.”
Ground and aerial baiting is co-ordinated across a designated area.
Goldfields Nullarbor Rangelands Biosecurity Association’s wild dog control map.Picture: Supplied
The ability to track dogs depends on what country they are moving in.
“In places like the Goldfields, where there’s lots of scrub around the place, they are hard to get a clean shot at, so baiting’s important,” she said.
She urges people who take their domestic dogs into the WA bush to be aware that their animals could die if they are not restrained and wander into baited areas.
“And that comes back on us unfairly, because our job is to protect an industry that’s really struggling,” she said.
Wood believes the McGowan Government should look to Queensland where outback shires such as Longreach are now accessing long-term, low-interest loans for pastoralists so they can build the sort of fencing that has been so successful at his old stomping ground, Rawlinna station, on the Nullarbor.
He describes Rawlinna, which now has a massive fenced area 450km in circumference, as the “candle on the hill”, saying there is no alternative to biosecurity fencing.
More than 65,000 sheep went through Rawlinna’s shearing shed earlier this year.
“Ultimately, the State Government has to make a decision on whether it wants a small stock industry in WA or not,” he said.
“If we still continue to stumble along as we are now, the decision will be made for them.”
Ryan agreed: “It’s reached a tipping point, and there’s an awful lot at stake.”