50 shades of green in an electrifying Easter

The big ones who weren't scared of me this morning

The big ones who weren’t scared of me this morning

There’s nothing black and white about being a farmer like me; there are about 50 shades of green. For this greenie farmer has a big problem that is not widely appreciated outside farming circles and, in fact, denied altogether by greenies of a different shade. It’s a kangaroo problem.

The side of the farm that adjoins state forest hosts about 300 kangaroos and wallabies every day and they’re quite literally eating us out of house and home. Last year, we and the cows harvested around 10 tonnes of dry matter per hectare (DM/ha) on the non-forest side compared to just 5 tonnes DM/ha on the half of the farm that sits next to the forest. The bottom line: it’s not even paying its share of the mortgage.

How could a few hundred macropods make such a dent in the farm when researchers say they don’t compete with cattle? First of all, the research was done in semi-arid land, which is not comparable to dairy farm pasture.

Rye grass, the dominant dairy farm pasture species, is sweet, much lower in fibre and easy to snip off at ground level if you have upper and lower teeth. Cows don’t – they only have one set of teeth and wrap their tongues around the grass to eat it – which limits how short they can eat the grass.

Kangaroos and wallabies have wonderful teeth for eating really tough native grass that also make it possible to raze less fibrous grass to ground level, which is exactly what happens on our farm.

Macropod teeth are brilliant for snipping off every last blade of grass. Source: howstuffworks.com

You could host a lawn bowls championship on our pastures closest to the bush, year round. Rye grass just doesn’t cope with that kind of pressure. It needs rest time between grazings so it can replenish its energy stores enough to push out new leaves and grow healthy roots.

Just a couple of years ago, we discovered that not even a vigorous fast-growing crop like oats can outrun our kangaroo population.

Oats eaten by kangaroos

Oats eaten by kangaroos

Oats guarded by dogs unaffected by kangaroos

Oats guarded by dogs unaffected by kangaroos

So, what are our options? We got a licence to cull 40 kangaroos a year but never fired a shot. It would be like trying to push back the tide and I have no appetite for creeping around in the chilly dawn air with a gun every week. I find it gut-wrenching enough to euthanase a suffering creature, let alone stalking Skippy.

Next, I tried the great Maremma experiment. Charlie and Lola have turned out to be fantastic livestock guardians but they’re almost too good. When a threat approaches their calves, Lola stays with the poddies while Charlie ventures out to see whatever it is off the premises. They are effective for about a 50 metre radius of the calves but not hundreds of acres.

Charlie and Lola love their bovine friends

Charlie and Lola love their bovine friends

I even investigated spraying dingo urine around the boundary and all manner of sonic deterrents but found them either ineffective or impractical.

It’s come down to a cracking great electric fence. I’ve taken out a new mortgage to install it with real regret because we’ve had to remove trees to put it in and I know we’re committing ourselves to a lifetime of intensive maintenance.

The roo fence

The roo fence

The fence is only halfway around the boundary so far but I’ve already got a taste of what it takes to make it work. It will take more than one nasty shock to convince our visitors to dine elsewhere and kangaroos prefer to go under rather than over fences, so I have to keep the fence fired up all the way down to the wire that almost scrapes the ground. Longish green grass is enough to sap power from the system and have the roos squeezing under again.

I’ve spent a lot of time with my fence fault finder this Easter and I have a suspicion the fun is just beginning.

Good excuse for a walk

Good excuse for a walk

So, being an ethical farmer is not as clear-cut as you might think. If I carried on as we have been, we would be providing a great breeding ground for hundreds more roos than the bush can sustain and saved the felling of what I’m guessing was a thousand trees.

Building the fence means a more resilient farm that no longer relies on fodder bought in from across the state. It also means that I might finally be able to extend our program of planting 1000 trees a year to add to our 27 hectares of native forest on that side of the farm without the seedlings being wiped out.

Most importantly, if I am being honest, it secures the farm for our children. What would you do?

From the forest into light

From the forest into light

Getting kangaroos off the farm without fences or guns

Moving the maremma hotel

Moving the maremmas' home

Our farm shares kilometres of boundaries with state forest and, unfortunately, tonnes of its feed with hundreds of kangaroos and wallabies. While animal activists quote research carried out in semi-arid lands that found no competition between livestock and macropods, nothing could be further from the truth here.

The kangaroos and wallabies decimate luscious dairy pastures and crops. Last year, an oat crop adjoining the forest was cropped to just four inches high near the bush and grew to around a metre tall on the other (inner) side of the same paddock.

Our neighbours have installed massive fences in an attempt to keep the kangaroos and wallabies out, with mixed success. The other alternative is to shoot them and I do have a licence to cull 40. I haven’t used it because I hate the thought of it.

Instead, I’ve been looking at ways to deter them from the farm. A promising study used dingo urine but this seems to have come to a premature halt due to staffing issues. Many researchers have found ultrasonic deterrents ineffective.

I’m hoping we’ve found the solution. We’ve been bonding two maremma livestock guardian dogs, Charlie and Lola, to our calves and teaching them to respect the boundary fences. Fluffy white 35-kilogram bounders, these gentle dogs have a formidable bark and presence. They are also very protective of their “family” – us and the calves.

The only hitch to date has been getting them to roam far enough from their charges, so we’ve moved them and a couple of bovine mates to join a much larger mob living by the forest. Charlie was happy to go but Lola hung behind in her more familiar paddock. Fingers crossed they make the transition!

Charlie and Lola the maremmas

Charlie and Lola love their bovine friends


We’ve had Charlie and Lola since they were just 10 weeks old but, while they love us, we’re not their real family. The calves are. Now nearly two years old, they’ve slept, played and eaten alongside calves ever since they arrived.

The idea is that these beautiful Maremmas, bred as paddock-dwelling livestock guardians, will protect our calves from foxes and chase kangaroos and wallabies from the paddocks.

You see, I am a bit of a softie. Although I have a permit, I can’t bear to shoot at the 200 or more kangaroos and wallabies that visit us every day even while they’re decimating our fodder reserves and quite literally eating us out of house and home. The solution? I’m not sure I’m onto a winner yet but bonding the maremmas with the calves has been a two-year training phase in a grand Milk Maid experiment in macropod control. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been training Charlie and Lola to respect the 4km boundary fence and will soon let them out of the calf paddock to roam their 200-acre domain. I can hardly wait to see how they, the livestock and the wildlife respond and am practically twitching with excitement. Will keep you posted.