A hop and skip over the ditch

9 September 2020
Leslie A Weston, Charles Sturt University

Importing a new set of dung beetle species to New Zealand from 2010, the Kiwi Dung Beetle Release Strategy Group and Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research broke a 50-year-long dung beetle drought – releasing a host of environmental benefits in the interim. Establishing the first dung beetle rearing enterprise in the land of the long white cloud, Shaun Forgie sat down alongside Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research Project Leader, Simon Fowler to discuss the intricacies of rearing and distributing introduced beetle species with Charles Sturt University researcher, Professor Leslie Weston.

When one thinks of New Zealand, one thinks of lush green pastures full of sheep, horses and dairy cattle. With over 40 M head of livestock depositing over 100 M tons of dung directly on productive NZ pastures, dung accumulation has previously resulted in serious leaching of nutrients and run-off in flow ways, soil compaction, build up livestock pests and forage fouling in New Zealand. For over 150 years, New Zealand producers raised crops and livestock in the almost complete absence of any dung beetles on the island’s pastures.

However, this all changed when Simon Fowler and Shaun Forgie of Landcare Research joined forces with members of the Dung Beetle Release Strategy Group and campaigned for the release of dung beetles in New Zealand. Flash forward 10 years later ... and in November 2019, Leslie Weston and Russ Barrow of Charles Sturt University, researchers with the Dung Beetle Ecosystem Engineers project in Australia, hopped across the ditch and visited Simon and Shaun, international partners in the DBEE project, to gain a better appreciation for the role of dung beetles and their importance to New Zealand pastures. Shaun has long since completed his PhD on dung beetle ecology at Landcare Research, and Simon and Shaun have been seriously successful in importing numerous dung beetles to New Zealand.

Shaun is currently the co-founder and owner of Dung Beetle Innovations, a successful and expanding enterprise that distributes dung beetles across New Zealand and creates solutions for healthier soils and pastures along the way. DBI was established in West Auckland in 2014 and is now generating up to 100,000 beetles a year for redistribution on New Zealand pastures under controlled conditions in covered nursery sites. Couriering beetles to producers and landowners all over New Zealand, Shaun successfully rears 11 species of beetles on site and in 2020 is distributing thousands of each of six species to local livestock producers, dairy farmers and interested stakeholders. As Shaun indicated, it’s taken a lifetime of research and dedication to get this far and today his enterprise is literally set to fly! Simon also reflected on the initial work that was performed by the Landcare New Zealand team, in cooperation with the Environmental Risk Management Authority in New Zealand. He noted that 2 to 3 years of intensive research was required to overcome opposition to dung beetle importation and finally the first species were imported from 2011 onwards.

In a recorded interview with Leslie (see below), Shaun and Simon commented on the potentially important role of dung beetles in New Zealand pastures. Although distribution of imported beetles is currently limited, Shaun noted that beetles like Bubus bison are now reared successfully in large hoop houses, and installations of 1500 beetles eventually generate up to 50,000 offspring over a one to two-year period. This particular winter active species forms deep tunnels of up to 60 cm in depth in West Auckland and surrounds, thereby incorporating tons of dung in short time, producing nutrient rich brood balls below ground, and raising both A and B horizon soils in soil push-ups, due to rigorous tunnel activity. Such prolific activity has resulted in improved soil health, infiltration of water and soil nutrients, and pasture growth with reduction in forage fouling due to dung deposits. Shaun’s business plan is an interesting one, with the DBI business model expanding for another 10 years and by 2040, he sincerely hopes to be out of business due to the successful introductions of numerous species across New Zealand. Simon is currently staying busy directing research on the ecology and modelling of ecosystem services provided by various dung beetle species in the DBEE project and hoping for additional importations in future years! For more information see Dung Beetle Innovations website at https://dungbeetles.co.nz/