This Queensland farmer lost half his sheep in a bloody attack – but was it wild dogs or rogue pets?

<span>Jim and Debbie Dieckmann used to run a commercial sheep property but down-sized to a smaller block (and flock).</span><span>Photograph: The Guardian</span>
Jim and Debbie Dieckmann used to run a commercial sheep property but down-sized to a smaller block (and flock).Photograph: The Guardian

On the picturesque foothills of the Great Dividing Range, west of Brisbane, sheep graziers Jim and Debbie Dieckmann woke up to a massacre.

“The further I walked the more I saw, dead ones, others trying to get up with punctured lungs, their guts hanging out, udders torn to pieces,” Jim says. “It’s gut wrenching, it brings you to tears sometimes.”

In the early hours of the morning, almost all of their sheep were mauled by dogs. Once infection set in, the death count rose to 34 – about half their flock.

It’s the deadliest attack by “wild dogs” – a catch-all term describing any canine roaming wild, including dingoes – that Jim has seen in 50 years of sheep grazing, and in this region, he says, and it’s getting worse.

The Dieckmanns used to run a commercial sheep property further west but down-sized to a smaller block (and flock) a few years ago. They now have one of a growing number of smaller land holdings subdivided from larger blocks that have popped up on Australia’s eastern seaboard as tree-changers flock to the regions for a slice of country life.

According to Greg Mifsud, the national wild dog management coordinator at the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions, that trend is contributing to a “breakdown of coordinated management programmes that kept those dog populations under control”.

Smaller holdings are less inclined to practise “wild dog” management, or are often too small to legally bait or shoot dogs on their property, Mifsud says. “We are now seeing dogs moving into areas and causing more harm,” he says.

This shift in land ownership is also bringing more domestic dogs into rural areas, whose owners may be unaware of the risks of letting their dogs wander. Mifsud says tree-changers need to be aware of the “additional responsibilities of dog ownership” that come when living near farmland.

Debbie and Jim found a myriad of paw prints too large to be a dingoes after the attack, and they say the profile of the bites, mostly on the sheep’s necks, suggest they came from a pack of rogue domesticated dogs.

That distinction between a domestic dog and dingo is an important but often difficult one to make, says the Deakin University professor of wildlife and conservation, Euan Ritchie.

“We need to make sure we attribute the cause to the right source,” he says. “Because that’s obviously influencing policy with regards to dingoes.”

That policy – wild dog control, which costs the economy an estimated $302m annually in management and agriculture losses – has proved highly contentious in Australia, splitting opinions among conservationists and First Nations peoples, challenging government departments, and differing from grazier to grazier.

The debate’s latest battleground is in Victoria, after the state government put an end to the killing of dingoes in the state’s north-west to save the species from localised extinction. That makes it the first state to protect dingoes on private land.

The announcement was welcomed by conservationists, First Nations peoples and animal rights groups, but drew strong criticism from the Victorian Farmers Federation who say it will lead to more attacks on livestock.

Its president, Emma Germano, says rural communities have been “blind-sided” by the announcement and are “completely unprepared”.

In another incident in Victoria, a farmer will face court next month for allegedly shooting two domestic dogs on his property that were attacking his sheep.

Meanwhile, reforms passed in South Australia last month increased penalties for owners of dogs that cause injury or death to another animal or person from $2,500 to a maximum of $25,000.

How the issue is defined is contentious too. Conservationists are calling for the term “wild dog” to be dropped, after research found the majority of wild canines are purebred dingoes, rather than cross-breeds of introduced species as previously thought.

But for graziers, this distinction is for the most part irrelevant, says Stephen Tully, the sheep, wool and goat president of Queensland’s peak farming lobby group, Agforce. “Dingoes and wild dogs can’t cohabitate with small livestock, it’s as simple as that,” he says.

Tully, a sheep grazier in western Queensland, says exclusion fencing, trapping and coordinated baiting have kept dog populations at a “maintenance level”.

Ritchie says research shows non-lethal approaches are a more effective and humane way to manage dingoes.

Queensland grazier Bruce McLeish has used guard donkeys to protect his flock. He says they significantly reduced the number of sheep killed by dogs, but are “not a cure, just another tool to try to minimise losses”.

Maremma sheepdogs are another popular guardian animal, but Mifsud says they can be a problem on smaller land holdings. “Their incessant barking just drove neighbours nuts,” he says.

On the Dieckmann’s property, Jim has been feeding the surviving sheep hay in a small holding paddock while he extends the dog-proof fence around the entire property.

Exclusion fencing can keep sheep safe but is costly and prohibits the movement of native wildlife through an area, Debbie says. “They aren’t always greeted favourably within the community, but if your livelihood depends on keeping the animals out, what can you do?”