By Cecile Lefort
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Australian government on Wednesday pledged A$5.2 million($3.88 million) to help sheep farmers combat wild dogs whose attacks are compounding the difficulties of an industry trying to recover from a severe drought that has reduced flocks.
"Wild dogs are estimated to cost Australia's agricultural sector as much as A$66 million each year through livestock losses, disease transmission and control costs, not to mention the emotional toll," said Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Barnaby Joyce in a press statement.
Australia is the world's third-largest sheep rearing nation with three times more sheep than people. However, its population has halved since the 1990s to about 70 million of the animals because of dog attacks and as the industry consolidated.
The dogs consist mainly of packs of interbred feral dogs and dingoes, an indigenous Australian canine, and packs of dingoes. The groups are capable of mauling 40 sheep in one night and have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of sheep in the past few years.
"In some areas, wild dogs can be the biggest problem to the sheep industry," said Ian Evans, program manager at industry body Australian Wool Innovation.
The Australian state of Queensland was the third-largest sheep rearing state a decade ago with 20 million animals but was hit hard by dog attacks that left it with 5 million sheep currently, according to industry participants.
"All you ever did was think about dogs and how to stop them," said Fraser Barry, a Queensland wool grower who lost up to 1,500 sheep in one year. "It meant we did not look at other facets about our business."
Queensland is now the smallest sheep rearing state with New South Wales and Victoria holding together more than half of the national flock, data from consulting firm Neil Clark shows.
The wild dogs "are the driving forces for some farmers leaving the sheep business," said Greg Mifsud, the project leader for the National Wild Dog Facilitator, Australia's feral pest management program.
The funds to combat the wild dogs are part of a A$25.8 million national pest management program that is Australia's first nation-wide action plan.
The proceeds will help finance cluster fencing around farms to keep out the predators, the government said.
Other prevention tools include lethal baiting, shooting and guard animals such alpacas, llamas and donkeys.
Exports of sheep meat and wool are forecast to reach A$6.2 billion this season, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), accounting for 10 percent of the nation's agriculture revenue.
($1 = 1.3410 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Cecile Lefort; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)