Guest Post by Emily Little
My working maremma Bear knew what was coming when my husband and I were forced to leave him, his young trainee (Marloo), and our dorper ewes and lambs when we evacuated ahead of the November 8 Bobin Fire.
Amid the panic, the rapidly approaching fire front, the bursts of spot fires appearing ahead of the front, and without a livestock trailer, we did not have the time or infrastructure to do more than open all the gates, load ourselves into the cars, and leave before it was too late. Lucky we did, as we later found out. Our road was blocked off by the blaze not long after. Now, I’m not a scientist, vet behaviouralist, or dog trainer— I’m a young farmer learning as I go but that dog came towards me, away from his sheep, as we drove away, stood hesitantly on the bridge that would later be little more than charcoal, and looked me square in the eyes. He knew something was wrong.
And yet, when we were finally able to get home later that night, dodging burning trees that had fallen across our once peaceful, sub-tropical home, there was Bear: unharmed and more eager to get in the ute than ever. In fact, being in the car (something that once unsettled him) is now his favourite place to be. Safer than his home had been that day, I guess.
Bear (three years old) at least was found on the same day as the fire, his 2IC trainee Marloo (12 months) we didn’t find until three days later (photo left). She was skin and bones; I didn’t even know a dog could drop so much weight in such a short time. We had left the sheep on the farm so that she would have something to come back to when she returned (at the time it was “if she returned”) and lucky we did. I returned on that third day, determined to camp out with the ewes and lambs until she appeared but I didn’t need to wait long. The pup was recovered, unharmed, and all animals moved to a less damaged property down the road.
These bush fires are unprecedented, so say the experts. The old cockies around here (over 80 years of living memory in our oldest community member) have never seen the Dingo Creek dry up, have never seen a fire that so uniformly destroyed the quiet, usually wet village of Bobin. With an average rainfall of 1368ml we have a predominantly wet climate, with wet sclerophyll and rainforest in every gully or south facing slope. Until the drought.
As of November 2019, we are at less than half our annual rainfall.
Naturally, we’re looking forward now, to next month, next year, next fire. To how we can better prepare our land, our livestock, and our working dogs for the likelihood of more bushfires. We do not want to become complacent; these fires occurred in spring. We have the worst of fire season still to come and the RFS have advised that being burnt out is not necessarily a protection against fires this coming summer.
But we’re nothing if not determined and, with the incredible Mid-North Coast and wider agriculture communities alongside us, we are in the best possible position. For example, our maremmas have been struggling post-fire. Bear, named for the teddy rather than grizzly variety, has changed. He is growling and snapping at his sheep and Marloo, guarding the water trough from them, and even going so far as to lunge at a well-known neighbour of ours who came to visit us at our temporary home. A vet check ruled out any health issues resulting from the fires so we’re now left with the sobering reality of a traumatised working dog who cannot perform his duties.
I posted about this on a livestock guardian dog (LGD) Facebook page and was contacted by Erin Williams of Livestock Guardian Dogs Australia. Erin is internationally recognised for her understanding, experience, and expertise in LGD training, management, deployment, and support. Unprompted, Erin reached out and over several phone calls and a whole lot of informative and supportive messages, coached me in Bear’s treatment. Trauma in dogs is not something I was prepared to deal with, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot now. About what I could have done to be better prepared.
The danger isn’t over. Both yesterday and the day before I was putting out fires, fires large enough to loom over my head and burn my face. How then can I ensure my animals don’t have to go through this again?
The answer isn’t an easy or straight forward one. There are long term solutions like putting in more water holding infrastructure such as dams, weirs, and swales, more fire-retardant design structures like tree breaks comprised of species that sear instead of burn (native fig species, rainforest species etc), or instigating cool burning or cultural burning practices led by our local indigenous community to sustainably manage fuel loads. All these and more we are looking to implement as key parts of the landscape recovery on our country and the wider community’s.
Then there are more short-term solutions. Erin’s advice was invaluable here. Take the stressed LGD away from the stressors, i.e. give him some long service leave from his sheep. He’s currently sitting down in the creek (laying in the water first thing on a summer’s morning is just about his favourite thing in the world), ears relaxed, eyes half closed, panting softly. “Engage his sense of smell,” Erin told me, her enthusiasm for these incredible animals clear. “It’s called nose works and it helps normalise the dog.”
So, we got him a kong, filled it with dog biscuits initially, then mince and rice. The sight of that big, white fluff ball splayed out in the shade of a flooded gum that didn’t burn, calm as ever with a kong between his paws, is a balm to my soul. Content animals, a content farmer makes.
We’ll be experimenting more with engaging both maremmas in scent-based therapy as I’ve begun calling it. It has soothed a lot of problem or boredom barking (they’re tethered more than usual while we’re staying at a friend’s farm), has relaxed Bear’s stress response remarkably, and has eased tension in me I didn’t even realise I was carrying around.
They’re not man’s best friend for nothing.
 BOM, Climate Data Online, Monthly Rainfall: Bobin (Bobin Creek), Date Accessed: 26 November 2019, <http://www.bom.gov.au/jsp/ncc/cdio/weatherData/av?p_nccObsCode=139&p_display_type=dataFile&p_startYear=&p_c=&p_stn_num=060046>.