A new north African species of poo-eating dung beetle has been imported into Australia to fill seasonal and geographic gaps and help livestock producers improve pasture health and productivity.
Australian livestock, such as sheep and cattle, produce about 80 million tonnes of dung a year, which can take months to break down and lead to inefficient grazing of large portions of pastures.
But the faeces-eating beetle’s work is estimated to contribute more than $1 billion in environmental and economic benefits each year.
Charles Sturt University research professor Leslie Weston is leading the national Dung Beetle Ecosystem Engineers project, analysing the impact and economic value of the insects.
She said she hoped the species from Morocco, which was active in spring and early summer, would fill seasonal gaps across southern Australia so that farmers could benefit from dung beetle action throughout the year.
“They were chosen specifically because of their potential ability to assist us in tunnelling and dung removal here in Australia under conditions with similar climates,” Professor Weston said.
“We are trying to find species that will give farmers the potential to rid their pastures of dung all seasons all year around.”
Professor Weston said, while there were hundreds of native species of dung beetles in Australia, it was only some of the 23 imported types that were active and effective in processing large quantities of heavy wet dung.
“By removing the dung from the pasture surface, we allow the pasture to regenerate more quickly, we introduce nutrients and organic matter to soil below ground.”
‘Essentially free fertiliser’
Producer and agronomist Hamish Verco started running cattle at his property in Western Flats in South Australia about four years ago and has witnessed the “significant role” of the little critters that were worshipped by ancient cultures.
“They recycle all the nutrients, rather than the dung sitting on top and either oxidising back into the atmosphere or not getting back into the soil,” he said.
“The dung beetles roll and burrow it down their tunnels, which allows the nutrients back into the soil and plants quicker.
And some species of the so-called ecosystem engineers can bury dung 250 times their own mass in one night.
“It’s quite visual, when the dung is inhabited by large numbers of beetles and being worked on you can see the dung physically being burrowed and removed and all the fresh soil that is being brought to the surface by the dung beetles,” Mr Verco said.
“It also gives you an idea of how deep they are burrowing because they are bringing up different textured soils from different layers of the profile.”
Reducing environmental impact
Aside from helping livestock holders regenerate their farms, improve pastures and soil health, the productive creatures also benefit the environment and ecosystem.
“The dung beetles positively influence the water cycle by creating their tunnels in which they bury the dung; they are essentially drain pipes,” Mr Verco said.
“So when there are heavy rainfall events, the water is able to move down these tunnels that the dung beetles have left and it helps water to infiltrate the soil.”
Professor Weston said they were also interested to see how the beetles would prevent erosion and drainage from dung.
While the dung beetle was worshipped by the Egyptians and people have known of the important role the dung beetle played in agriculture for millennia, Mr Verco believed they might have been a bit forgotten.
“Particularly in Australian agriculture because the native dung beetles in Australia were not quite good enough to actively burrow the dung,” he said.
But over the past 60 to 70 years, the CSIRO and other agricultural organisations have been dedicated to looking at getting dung beetles active for 365 days of the year to bury as much dung as possible on every farm.
“It is pretty awesome to see a collective sort of consciousness moving towards it and valuing it and starting to implement it on people’s properties,” Mr Verco said.