• Rachel Francis

A thing about DUNG BEETLES

(Based on an event at ORFC22)

Dung beetles promote soil health and fertility, support biodiversity and cut GHGs.

They were imported in vast numbers from UK farms to Australia in the sixties as living soil improvers

There are over 50 different types of dung beetle just in Ireland and the UK and it was recently confirmed that some dung beetles navigate in the dark by following the light of the Milky Way.

Bruce Thompson is a dairy farmer in Ireland. The family farm 320 head of dairy cows and rear young stock. He gets invited to speak at farming events because he's become a bit of a dung beetle expert. He's working to boost numbers of dung beetles on the farm and the results have helped to:

Improve the soil quality and fertility

Improve pasture

Reduce soil and nutrient run off

Support biodiversity on the farm

Reduce parasitic load on the farm and keep animals healthy

Save money

The story begins when a young Bruce Thompson goes over to Australia and is fascinated to learn that Australian farmers had imported vast numbers of British and Irish dung beetles during the sixties and seventies.

Why? He wondered.

And doesn't Australia have it's own Dung Beetles?

A dung pat is not waste product. It's a habitat and soil improver and the dung beetles that live and work there generate more habitat for other insects and food for wild birds and so on along the food chain. Different Dung Beetles choose different dung pats, some work summer, some work winter, some are tunnellers, they break off bits of dung and take them down deep into the soil, some are dwellers who make little chambers in the dung pat and break it down. In Africa, there are Dung Beetles called rollers, who roll dung into balls and run away with them.

The habitat created by dung and Dung Beetles is very important for biodiversity on the farm, in fact it's a cornerstone

Dung Beetles aerate the soil and improve local water quality, because their tunnelling allows rain water to filter into the soil, reducing run off.

They interrupt parasite life cycles, kill off e-coli bacteria and transport mites on their legs which eat blow fly larva.

Dung Beetles measurably reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions associated with fermentation of dung on the surface by breaking up, burying and digesting it. No wonder they were worshipped in Ancient Egypt.

So. Bruce Thompson returned home to Ireland and learned that Dung Beetles have been struggling of late. This is largely due to four things:

  • Change of land use (eg building developments, roads etc)

  • Livestock removal

  • Soil disturbance

  • Chemical treatments (wormers/anthelmintecs in particular )

He wanted to boost his on-farm Dung Beetle population by reducing use of Anthelmintics. These are an important tool for food production but they are used very liberally in intensive systems and this has led to a significant degree of resistance to the treatment. Thompson spotted an opportunity to introduce careful rotations and a more targeted approach.

The aim was to:

Drastically reduce the overall number of worms on farm

Breed from those displaying innate immunity to parasites

Help young stock develop adaptive immunity

Avoid blanket applications of Anthelmintics

In spring, young stock were turned out onto clean pasture with long grass and moved frequently. He did away with young stock paddocks, tightly grazing for weeks on end, because they act as multipliers for parasites.

Resistant stock follows young stock in the rotation, and sheep follow cattle. Pasture is tested regularly for worm eggs and a silage cut can help clean pasture that has a heavy worm burden.

Parasite burden varies from one year to the next, so you need to test regularly. Animals with high worm count and animals that are not putting on weight are drenched.

These animals with low resistance are not kept for breeding.

Due to new levels of resistance to anthelmintics, a percentage of worms will survive drenching and you dont want to be interbreeding these super worms. In response the vet recommended that Thompson should start turning freshly de-wormed stock onto unclean grazing which seems counterintuitive but it means the resistant worms are diluted by breeding with non-resistant worms.

Over time, the farm has grown a strong population of Dung Beetles and massively improved long term soil structure, without reducing animal health and without reducing productivity. Thompson's farm saves roughly £3,000 per year by reducing the use of anthelmintics and is experimenting with herbal leys. And why doesn't Australia have its own Dung Beetles? Well it does, but Australian Dung Beetles only like marsupial poo.

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Thank you for all your feedback. I'm so pleased that people have enjoyed reading The Long Acre. News about sequel here (You need to scroll down) Rachel x