Over the past 50 years these six-legged friends have been on a roll, helping us clean up the 280 million cow pats produced daily in Australia.

A dung beetle sitting on top of a ball of dung

An image of a dung beetle sitting on top of a ball of dung

We’ve been employing the help of foreign dung beetles to bury our problems for fifty years. Image: Andi Gentsch CC BY-SA 2.0.

Up until 1967, Australia had a mammoth problem that we solved by sweeping it under the carpet. It worked a treat, and this week it was announced that we’re doubling down the efforts with a slew of new projects.

The problem

Consider a herd of beef cattle, each cow weighing perhaps half a tonne, grazing away. If you were to guess, how many times would you say each animal defecated in a day? Once? Three times?

Well it’s actually around ten to twelve times. There are 28 million cattle in Australia, producing 280 million cow pats a day that can take months, and sometimes years, to break down. And that’s just cows, not to mention our native marsupial wildlife. You can see how quickly this issue piles up. So why aren’t we living in the Land Down Under a colossal hard-baked monolith of faeces?

The answer, for marsupial faeces at least, is our native dung beetles. They co-evolved with our bouncing, watery-eyed friends and are quite happy to bury their small and hard pellets underground. The enormous wet and sticky pats produced by cows, though? Our native beetles don’t stand a chance.

Four cows in a field

An image of three cows in a field

If a 500 kg steer produces 10 cowpats a day, and is processed to create — on average — 1800 quarter-pounder patties, that’s three dung ‘patties’ for every meat patty. Image: CAFNR CC BY-NC 2.0.

Cowpats are an issue not simply because, at their heart, they’re puddles of shit. They also—

  • Suffocate the grass beneath and inhibit plant growth.
  • Cause nutrient run-off, polluting and destroying the equilibrium in waterways.
  • Bear vital nutrients for the soil and plant growth, which need to be introduced piecemeal.
  • Act as a spawning ground for flies, with one large patty producing 3,000 bush flies in just one fortnight.

Flies alone are a stabbing, burrowing, festering nuisance that can harbour diseases and transmit infections, cause myiasis — the grizzly ‘fly strike’ wherein maggots digest the tail, wounds, and genitals of livestock. Flies are also an all-round pain in the arse.

We’ve established the flow-on effects of millions of tonnes of dung. So what was the solution?

The solution

It was the 1960s and, looking over our vast dung-strewn farmland, a newly immigrated entomologist working with us, Dr George Bornemissza, concluded our country had an issue. Instead of relying on our native dung beetles specialised to deal with marsupial faeces, Dr Bornemissza reasoned, why don’t we import beetles that have evolved to work with bovine faeces? And thus, our country-wide grassroots movement known as the Australian Dung Beetle Project emerged.

Headed by Dr Bornemissza, the Australian Dung Beetle Project gradually introduced 45 dung beetle species to Australia, bringing them in from Africa and the Mediterranean. Like tiny organic bulldozers, the insects were collected, reared, and released to farms around the country, to overwhelming success. Each beetle rollout was tailored for the particular farmland habitat, with certain species performing their role, on a roll rolling dung into their preferred soil type.

A shiny dung beetle: Onthophagus dandalu

A close up image of a shiny dung beetle: Onthophagus dandalu

The very shiny Onthophagus dandalu Image: David McClenaghan

In the last 50 years, we’ve continued introducing unique species of beetle to tackle specific requirements, such as the spring months in temperate climates where flies had a head-start over the beetles there.

After half a century of riding the success of our dung beetles, the latest application will be the National Dung Beetle Database (NDBD [a clear cut acronym]), which will perform a targeted and heavily monitored release of the beetles in specific locations around the country. The NDBD will house the data for beetle numbers and efficacy, and will feed back in to inform future deployments of beetles.

Haven’t had your fill of dung beetle information? Read more about some of the species of dung beetle we released in 2012-14.


  1. Tropical Australia including the NT where I work has benefited hugely over this 50 year period – now rarely see cow dung on surface on most properties grazing cattle in this region where normally a large cattle population [ except in more recent years, due to drought]. Nutrient benefit alone to vegetation is massive. A very successful project overall, and more recent efforts will improve outcomes as well, but probably not over the vast areas initially targeted, and now colonised by hard working dung beetles!!

  2. Caw dung following a phase of aging or composting, no raw, is a very good source for the very best fertilizer there is: worm casts from VERMICOMPOSTING. As it goes “One man´s rubbish is another man´s treasure”. Is all part of the circular economy!
    Australia has had a fair share of conflicting ecosystems when species have been introduced in the country by choice or accident: What would be the impact of the imported beetles in the local ecosystems? and above all: how many imported beetles would be needed to process the phenomenal volume of caw dung? How would you controll the population? In general, environmental problems may be remediated by an array of integrated measures, not just one!…..and vermicomposting could be one of them!

  3. How do you know what the pact is on native dung beetles?

    1. I do not know. That is why I am asking if there is any impact.
      Furthermore, imported beetles is perhaps a good thing (after strict quarentine and monitoring) but not the only good thing. However, beetles are not active during the whole year (they go dormant part of it). Therefore, apart from vermicomposting, other good uses should be found to process the dung and prevent flies and other negative effects. One such use is making BIOCHAR by a pyrolysis process that would produce an excellent soil conditioner to improve agriculture yields saving expensive fertilizers plus reducing CO2 emissions plus using the heat and gas of the pyrolysis process to power the farm. This is what I call an array of integrated measures (imported beetles, vermicomposting, biochar, etc.) to transform problems into opportunities. Consulting available.

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