Australian Predators of Sheep

January 18, 2010

In one of the comments on the  Dohne Sheep in Australia post, Ceecee asked what other predators bother the sheep at the Homebush farm in Queensland, Australia. I asked Susan about Australian predators of sheep, and her husband was kind enough to send me more information. (Thanks Geoff!)

I’ve added a few extra facts since here in the U.S. we’re not familiar with how these predators became a problem in Australia. So here’s our combined effort, with quotes from Geoff in green:

“Homebush Sheep Predation”

“Feral animals which endanger our sheep are pigs, foxes, and previously domesticated dogs.”

Wild (feral) Pigs –

Feral Pig

Pigs are not a native species to Australia, but were introduced by way of Captain Cook with the first fleet to Australia in 1788.

These days the feral pigs are common and widely distributed over large expanses of Australia. They appear to threaten the long-term survival of a number of species of native plants and animals across Australia by either direct predation of native animals or by consumption of native plants.  They also have been implicated in the spread of the root-rot fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi.

And they are a problem when you have sheep!

“Feral pigs are endemic, and hard to control. They are omnivorous, and will eat nearly anything. They are very keen on young lambs. Large specimens have been observed trailing mobs and picking off lamb after lamb from the back of the mob. When killed and cut open they can be seen to have consumed many lambs in one ‘sitting’.”

Foxes –

Fox in Australia (by Joe Tompkins, from the Fox DNA website)

Foxes are feral in Australia because they’re another introduced species. European foxes were brought to Australia in the mid-1800s for hunting. They have spread to most of the continent since that time.   Foxes compete with Australian native animals for food and habitat and can act a source of disease.  They have a major impact on the Australian fauna, predating on ground nesting birds, mammals and reptiles. . . and sheep!

“Lambs are always at risk from all predators. Healthy adults are generally safe from crows, foxes and pigs. Sick adults or lambing ewes are also at risk from all predators, especially crows and foxes. A lambing ewe is a very vulnerable target. Foxes will kill a lamb before it has cleared the birth canal.”

Feral Dogs –

Wild dogs can be a problem anywhere it seems.

All classes of sheep are in danger of attack from dogs: wild, feral or domestic.  A dog, or much worse still, a pack of dogs, can inflict massive damage on a sheep flock.  The dogs will kill many in the mob by frenzied biting and tearing, while many other sheep die from being run to exhaustion, and will die with no signs of being bitten.  Others will survive the initial attack but develop infection. Unless these sheep are treated with an antibiotic many of them will die, or the wounds become a target for flies to lay their eggs in, which develop into maggots, and this also often leads to death.

Interestingly, after an attack it is possible to determine the type of dog which committed it. A dingo (native dog) will attack the flanks of the sheep, whereas feral or domestic dogs tend to attack the head and fore-parts.

I’ve known of many people here in the states losing sheep to dogs.  We’ve even had problems here, but fortunately, there’s never been more dogs at one time than our guard dogs could handle.

Now for the native species of Australian predators!

“Native animals which can attack our sheep are crows, eagles, and dingos.”

Crows –

Crow

Well, crows are familiar here in the US as well, but I don’t think I’ve heard of this problem before. . .

“Crows will attack a ewe in the process of lambing, targeting udder, vulva and eyes.  They will attack the lamb during birth or immediately after, before it stands, and peck out the eyes.”

Now that’s nasty!

Eagles –

Wedge Tailed Eagle (courtesy Wikipedia)

These are largest raptors in Australia and are the most common of all the world’s large eagles.  Wedge-tails can eat almost anything of a suitable size, live-caught or as carrion, so lambs are right in there as a viable food source.

“Wedge-tailed eagles will target and can carry away lambs, or tear them into carry size portions. They are Australia’s biggest eagle, and a protected species.”

And lastly, one of those uniquely Australian species…

Dingoes –

Dingos, along with feral dogs, are the biggest terrestrial predator in Australia.  As such, there are considered an “apex predator”, meaning they have no natural enemies of their own, and sit at the top of the food chain.

The attack sheep pretty much the same way as wild dogs, and are seen as a pest by the sheep industry in Australia.

Geoff also noted. . .

“Health of the sheep is a big factor in their vulnerability to attack from any predator, except dogs.  Vitality can be compromised by many factors such as available feed or parasite burden. Nutritional stress simply caused by a reduction in feed quality due to seasonal conditions will impact on the vitality of the sheep enough to make them more vulnerable to attack. Nutritionally depleted ewes have a longer and more difficult lambing, and the ewe and lamb are both slower to recover from the stresses of birth. From their and our point of view a quick birth is a good birth. Our management is highly focused on providing the pre-lambing ewes with added nutrition, especially in adverse seasons, to ensure they as strong as possible for the big event.

Some predation can be rationalized and come to terms with as ‘nature’s way’. When sick, weak, or dying animals are taken for example.  However it is hard to accept seeing the remnants of a mob that has been decimated and terrorized by a pack of dogs, or seeing an otherwise perfect lamb dying because it’s eyes were pecked out by a crow as it slept.

But we try.”

Sounds like an exceptionally good shepherd to me! Thanks for all the interesting info Geoff!

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