Everybody has a mental picture of a dung beetle at work: a tough-looking creature with its back legs on an impossibly large ball of dung pushing backwards towards some unknown, unseen destination. Not everybody knows, however, that there are about 780 different species of dung beetle in South Africa alone.

Dung beetles (Pachylomerus femoralis) perform a number of key ecological functions so smallholders should examine their plots to discover what they can do to encourage dung beetles to take up residence in greater numbers. Their obvious role is to break up, disperse, eat or decompose dung of livestock or wild herbivores. Not only do they clean our pastures, they also reduce greenhouse gas emissions as the manure would produce methane if left in the field.

They eat eggs of flies and other parasites, which reduces the number of pests. They also carry mites which eat fly maggots. They improve pasture fertility by adding organic matter and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium and calcium. They increase soil aeration, which assists rain infiltration and reduces the need for harrowing. Dung beetles increase biodiversity above and below ground and their numbers on your land provide a measure of the biodiversity of your smallholding.

As part of the food chain, they form a vital food source. Threats to dung beetles include climate change, habitat loss, habitat changes, excessive soil disturbance and persistent use of insecticides. Smallholders can help by doing what they can to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by, amongst other measures, using no till methods.

Rotational grazing, as well as allowing fields to remain fallow for a few weeks encourages beetle activity. Multi species grazing is also good. When it comes to the effects of chemical treatments of livestock, there are some options that support the dung beetle. Instead of frequently deworming the whole herd or flock, rather check faecal egg counts and treat only the animals that need deworming.

Choose breeds of livestock that are more resistant to parasites, or selectively breed for resistance. An integrated pest management system will reduce all the chemicals used on your land. Where possible, use biological pest control by increasing the biodiversity of natural predators. Do some research on high-fibre grasses and natural anti-parasitic grass species that will grow in your area.

You can also set aside insect-protected areas on the margins of your fields or in rewilding corridors where natural ecosystems come into better balance. Dung beetles vary in size from 5mm to 50mm. They are divided into groups according to how they dispose of the dung: tunnelers (paracoprids), dwellers (endocoprids) and rollers (telecoprids). You might also encounter kleptocoprids, which steal the rolled balls of telecoprids in which to lay their eggs. It often happens that there are many different species of dung beetles in a single pile of manure.

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