Dung delight

Gerry and Pam Cunningham from Cannibal Creek Landcare. Picture: Stewart Chambers 348916_12

Dung beetles may be known for their singular affection for all things faecal, yet if you were to ask just about anyone in farming and agriculture what they think of these critters, you will hear nothing but respect and admiration. As Gazette journalist COREY EVERITT reports, beetles play a key role in sustainable agriculture. Many people, local and across the state, are working tirelessly to establish these lovers of poop and promote their unrivaled benefit to the soil and our waterways.

Regional agriculture Landcare facilitator at Melbourne Water, Karen Thomas covers a vast array of issues and causes for farmers across the state.

Possibly at the top of both her personal passion and professional expertise are dung beetles.

Recently she collaborated with Whittlesea Council, where she conducted a farm walk which provided valuable insights into the role of dung beetles on livestock farms and their benefits in nutrient cycling in soil, protecting waterways from runoff, and reducing fly populations.

This is one of many activities she is doing to showcase how beetles are vital productive workers in the soil.

“Dung beetles are nature’s unsung heroes when it comes to managing animal waste on farms,” she said.

“These small insects play a crucial role in breaking down and recycling dung, transforming it into valuable nutrients for the soil. By doing so, dung beetles help to improve soil health and fertility, making it more suitable for sustainable agriculture.”

If a farmer is sick of the flies and worries about manure seeping into precious waterways, look no further than dung beetles.

“Livestock farms often produce significant amounts of manure, which, if not managed properly, can lead to nutrient runoff and pollution of waterways. Dung beetles help to prevent this by burying dung deep into the soil, minimising the risk of nutrient runoff and protecting the quality of nearby water sources,” Karen said.

“Furthermore, dung beetles also help in reducing fly populations on livestock farms.

“Flies are a common nuisance for both animals and farmers, and their presence can lead to various health issues.

“Dung beetles play a vital role in breaking down dung, which reduces the availability of breeding sites for flies, thus naturally controlling their population.”

If we are going to make the agriculture chain from farm to table sustainable, to Karen and Melbourne, dung beetles are a crucial link in this chain, their employment in the soil will help to eliminate the use of artificial fertilisers and reduce pollution.

By promoting their benefits, it will help more efforts to establish them across Victorian farms.

Much like their role of eating poo being far too simple for the reality of what they actually do, the establishment of dung beetles in the Victorian conditions is not as straightforward as it sounds.

Tynong North locals Pam and Gerry Cunningham are secretary and president of the Cannibal Creek Landcare group (CCL), respectively.

For the past three years they have been a part of local efforts to build up substantial populations of beetles on farms.

“It’s much easier to breed cows than dung beetles,” Pam said.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know.”

There are countless species of dung beetles in Australia, both native and introduced.

The key difficulty is the species needed for farms are almost all introduced from different regions of the world.

The reason being is that dung beetles are, you could say, picky eaters. Native species are conditioned to go for the dung of native animals, those of marsupials.

They can go for the more pellet-like dung of sheep or the fibrous type with horses, but native beetles commonly can’t process the dung of cows, the main contributor of manure on livestock farms.

This is why the introduced species from Europe or North Africa are so important to condition on Victorian farms where they do have a taste for cow dung.

This is in large, why the progress of establishing them in Victoria is still one of trial and error where the ways to make a large, sustainable population are still being worked by professionals like Karen and locals like Pam and Gerry.

There are mainly two methods of introducing beetles, either directly releasing a large amount in the area and hoping for the best or isolating a smaller number within a contained area like a garden bed or into intermediate bulk container (IBC) for a controlled growth of population to be eventually released into the paddock.

Pam, Gerry and CCL have tried all ways multiple times, starting ten years ago in a trial of a full release of the Bubas Bison species.

“We didn’t know then that you don’t just put them out in ten paddocks, you put them all in the same paddock, you cover them so the birds don’t get them until they have gone into the dung,” Pam said.

“We did it a second time and we all failed, none of them survived, they all got eaten.”

Keeping them from birds was the first lesson with many more learnt after.

For the last three years they have had a set up of garden beds with only a few hundred beetles.

“The theory is that if you raise them in a nursery bed, when they emerge to take them out into a release tent or something in the paddock, and you keep some to breed on so you can keep them perpetually going,” Pam said.

“But you’ve got to have enough to release as well because there is no point releasing 100 in the paddock because you can’t contain them.”

The latest attempt has been surviving, but it is up and down.

This year, Pam and Gerry’s bubus bubalus species has emerged, yet it comes as a surprise as they were dormant at the time the previous years.

If there is one thing certain, it’s that establishing beetles will take time.

“Sometimes, it’s said it might not emerge until the conditions are right, so it stays in its pupae form and sometimes you might not see any results until four years’ time,” Pam said.

“What we have released already you might not see results for four years, but we are hoping we will see them before that.”

Though happy to see them emerge, it still raises more questions about how they work and how they can thrive in this new environment.

For instance, over the years Pam has covered the garden beds when it’s rained, too much of which can quickly be hazardous for the beetle, yet over the past year she pulled back on covering them as they do eventually need to be conditioned to it if they are to be released.

And yet, the bubas bubalus came out better this year than the last.

While she has also found even the choice of covering can have an effect.

“It’s better to use white shade cloth than cream shade cloth, because the ones with the white get better than the cream, I don’t know if it’s about the amount of light they get,” Pam said.

While it has yet to be mentioned other factors, such as seasons. Dung beetle species emerge in different seasonal cycles, it isn’t about sustaining one species but having a system of multiple species thriving all year round.

Pam’s experience testifies to her claim that there are “lots of things we don’t know” with dung beetles, and only a long commitment to trial and error will produce a suitable practice.

Karen has been in contact with Pam, Gerry and CCL with their efforts on dung beetles and she knows most of all the ins and outs of trying to establish and distribute.

Her focus is spreading awareness about the measures farmers can take to help beetle populations. One big problem is drenching.

“For the dung beetle, drenching is the enemy, it really has a large impact against beetles,” Karen said.

“It’s not that farmers have to stop drenching, but there is an attitude of just doing a lot, it’s mainly used just in case, but we should be finding the right time to do it.”

While farmers can help beatles by keeping them in mind when thinking about their drainage.

“Flooding also has a massive impact on beetles, it can wipe them out easily. If we can manage our farms with beetles in mind it can go a long way,” Karen said.

Reasons like this are why Melbourne Water are taking a collaborative approach with farmers, by bridging state institutions with local Landcare groups, not just to raise awareness but providing a program of breeding and distribution at little cost to the community.

Previously, individual farmers could acquire beetles mainly by directly buying them, a costly measure with an uncertain chance of success on release.

What Karen and Melbourne Water are doing is helping local groups and farmers establish breeding areas to consolidate numbers across the state, such as they have with Pam, Gerry and CCL.

With numbers in breeding, they can provide avenues for distribution by first mapping existing beetles populations across areas.

With this mapping farmers can exchange between themselves, with the beetles they may have in exchange for ones they need, instead of buying them directly.

“We want farmers to understand what they have. For instance, my farm doesn’t have an autumn beetle, I go and find either a breeder or a property that does have an autumn beetle and exchange with them,” Karen said.

“Or if you want to establish new beetles, you can try breeding the new species that are coming out of CSIRO.

“I think we have been shown from history that it takes a really long time to establish new dung beetle species, so it means we need new forms of breeding and distribution that help retain them and spread them easily.

“Rather than buying beetles, which is very costly, by having both breeders and exchange it shortens the time to get them established across the land.”

Landcare groups in Bass Coast and South Gippsland have recently completed mapping of dung beetle populations in their area.

Pam is pushing for this to happen for the Western Port Catchment.

In December there will be a release in Tynong and Tonimbuk areas of 2000 Othophagus gazella dung beetles, it’s hoped they will go on to thrive. With a mapping of the catchment, the results of the release may be seen.

Karen thinks CCL, as well as many groups outside of Melbourne Water’s range such as Geelong and South Gippsland, are leading the cause for the dung beetle.

“They are leaders in the field, they work really hard, I’ve seen the numerous beds Pam has active at the moment,” Karen said.

“You need people like in Cannibal Creek and landcare as a whole, who take the initiative to get involved and take responsibility, it makes the work a lot easier.”

If you wish to see more detail about dung beetles, Melbourne Water has collaborated with Landcare groups to provide fact sheets that are available at the Dung Beetles in Agriculture page on Melbourne Water’s website, as well as informational videos available on their Youtube channel.

If you wish to get involved with dung beetles, you can get involved in Cannibal Creek Landcare by emailing cannibalcreeklandcare@gmail.com, or you can also get involved with any other local landcare group by finding them on Landcare’s directory at landcarevictoria.org.au/LVI/LVI/Get-Involved/Find-your-local-Landcare-group.aspx