Dung Beetles

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The land was dry and hard, and that was before the drought set in. Years of overgrazing had left the country around Warramba in a poor state. At first, we removed all stock and rested the land, then looked at ways to improve it without the use of chemicals. Enter John Feehan and his dung beetles.

A former scientist with the CSIRO, John now runs a mail-order dung beetle business out of Canberra. These little creatures have been helping to rejuvenate the earth since the Jurassic period. When they bury the dung, they improve the fertility of the soil by putting nitrogen directly into the ground. Dung beetles also aerate the soil, improving water retention, and sequester tons of carbon, reducing greenhouse gases.

When cattle and sheep were introduced into Australia, the native dung beetles couldn’t cope with the size of the manure. They were adapted to deal with the smaller output from kangaroos and other native animals. John and colleagues at the CSIRO began looking at overseas species — think Africa — and began to study the positive impact they could have on the Australian landscape. He now has 23 species established in Australia and a growing number of farmers interested in using them.

Our starter colony arrived in a box at our Sydney home via overnight post, mixed in with the online shopping and bank statements. Inside were over 1500 hundred beetles ready to call Warramba home, slowed down and sleeping via a quick chill in the freezer.

It took just days before we saw the effect, as the beetles snacked on the dung from our fold of Highland coos that had previously collected in the paddocks. We started to see the pats perforated by little dung beetle holes, 200 to 300 millimetres deep. By the time the drought bit, our land was more prepared and more resilient — and the cost was a mere fraction of the expense of traditional synthetic fertilisers, and you only have to do it once.

We have recent reports from neighbours that our little team of beetles are travelling across the Valley. It’s a competition to see if you can spot them.

Neil Varcoe