Farm Goes to the Dogs



A DEVASTATED farming couple who claim wild dogs drove them out of business are suing the State Government.

Ron and Esther Stockwell want $3.5million compensation, claiming wild dogs allowed to breed on neighboring crown land regularly killed their sheep and cows over seven years.

This eventually led to the loss of their farm, which had been in the family for more than half a century.

They claim the government was negligent because it failed to order the trapping and shooting of the dogs.

The couple claim the problem started in 1983 when the government designated 1300ha of land next to the Stockwells' property, at Thowgla, 20km from Corryong in eastern Victoria, as an area for research.

The area was allowed to develop naturally without human intervention.

The Stockwells claim wild dogs which quickly bred in the area regularly slaughtered livestock on local farms. Mr Stockwell, 57, said he often found several sheep and calves dead or injured in the paddocks in the morning. "It would turn your blood cold," he said. "Our paddocks served as a restaurant next door for the dogs." Trying to save his flock, Mr Stockwell camped each night for three months in his utility with a gun. The Stockwells claim they lost hundreds of sheep. They said the frequent dog attacks ruined their breeding program. Mr Stockwell said he became so desperate he called the then Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to get rid of the dogs. Department officers told him they had limited resources to help.

Mr. Stockwell said officers of the Department of Agriculture
advised him in 1990 to get rid of his sheep and cattle, claiming it was cruel for the animals to be exposed to dog attacks.

Then the Commonwealth Bank repossessed the 284ha property because the couple could not meet debt payments. The Stockwells rent a house on the property they once owned.

Mrs Stockwell said she and her husband were still battling to put food on the table. But they were determined to fight the government for compensation.

"We just want what we had back," Mrs Stockwell said. Mr Stockwell said he knew every tree on his property. He would not move.

The Stockwells' case is listed for mediation next month. If mediation is unsuccessful, the case is listed for the Supreme Court in May.

Mr Stockwell left school at 14 and ran several successful businesses. "You work all your life and then have everything taken away," he said.

Acting for the Stockwells is lawyer Terence Grundy, of T.F.Grundy & Co. Mr Grundy believes the Stockwells have a good case. He said Mr Stockwell was the "ultimate conservationist" who had been unfairly treated. "The claim is made in nuisance, negligence and breach of statutory duty," Mr Grundy said. He said the State Government failed to maintain proper patrols, traps and extermination of wild dogs. He said dog catchers had been employed, but they had been restricted by limited resources.

Mr Stockwell said the Government should have mass-poisoned the dogs. He complained that decisions affecting his livelihood had been made by bureaucrats in Melbourne.

Local businesses in the district also claimed to have been affected by dog attacks. Russell McLean, of McLean's Rural Merchandise, said many Upper Murray farmers had left the sheep industry over the past decade. "Wild dogs are a problem and always will be a problem," Mr McLean said. "There is no control for properties that back on to the National Park." He said customers had spoken of their fears of meeting wild dogs in the bush.

Mr Stockwell said he no longer allowed his visiting grandchildren to play in the bush. "I am frightened when I think about what three or four dogs can do ... you will have no hope," he said.

Ian Lobban, of the Victorian Farmers Federation,is working on recommendations to the State Government on control of wild dogs. Mr Lobban, chairman of the VFF land management committee, said the problem had to be solved. He said there had been calls for the wild dog problem to be incorporated with other land problems, such as weeds. But he believed the issue should be handled separately. He said farmers could best decide how funds allocated for the problem should be spent. "Some farmers may believe fences work in some areas, but farmers in other areas may say they are useless," he said. Mr Lobban said the government should take responsibility for animals living and breeding on public land. "It's like farmers who should take responsibility for foxes and rabbits on their private land," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Minister for Environment and Conservation, Sherryl Garbutt, said it was not appropriate to comment on the legal case because it started under the previous government. She said the Bracks Government was aware of problems being caused by wild dogs in parts of the state. She said it was believed to be counter-productive to deal with the issue in isolation from other major pest strategies.

"The Bracks Government is looking at developing a strategic comprehensive weed and pest animal strategy," the spokeswoman said. "The development of this strategy signals a significant move forward in the management of weed and pest management in Victoria." The strategy will be finalised next year. The Bracks Government has maintained funding for tackling the wild dogs menace and provided $250,000 to the wild dog program in 2000-2001.

Mr Lobban said all states should work together to solve the problem. He said poisoning programs in Victoria would not work if they were not backed by similar campaigns in NSW.