From the rugged Great Australian Bight coastline to where it ends abruptly 5614km later in a paddock near Roma in Queensland, the Dog Fence is the longest human-made structure on Earth – although locals living nearby weren’t aware of this when I mentioned it to them. And why would they be?
As I travelled along its New South Wales section, which is administered by the Border Fence Maintenance Board, I witnessed a montage of outback history where mulga fence posts handcut for the original NSW rabbit fence stood superseded by new steel star pickets. A patchwork of wire told a decades’ long story of the battle to keep dingoes and wild dogs trapped on one side, so pastoralists could raise sheep and cattle on the other.
The NSW section is maintained by seven Border Fence Maintenance officers who live at outposts along it. Twice a week they patrol their patch checking for damage from emus, kangaroos and other wildlife. They remove weeds so the fence remains visible and accessible. They close gates if reckless tourists or passers-by leave them open. As I drove along I stopped to chat to Kevin Johnston, a maintenance officer responsible for a few hundred kilometres that straddle the SA/NSW border. I asked him about life on the fence. At his outpost of Broughams Gate, he described how his father had worked and died on the fence and how his grandfather had cut some of the original mulga fence posts. “The hardest thing about the work is being on your own – the isolation,” Kevin said. Despite that, I could tell the fence maintenance officers, formerly known as ‘boundary riders’, relish the remote lifestyle the fence demands and the task of protecting farmers’ livelihoods.
Border Downs, a NSW station that borders the Dog Fence, is owned by Mark Lacey, a farmer whose family has been working the land in the area for five generations. There I saw 600 sheep mustered, yarded and crutched by Mike and contract workers. “Raising sheep wouldn’t be possible without the Dog Fence,” he told me. “Without it, we would lose about 80 per cent of our lambs.”