Once upon a time….. nature ingeniously crafted a complex and elegant ecosystem which, by and large, worked rather well.  Then we came along and started improving things. This diverse ecosystem, encompassing everything from towering trees to microscopic organisms, thrives on diversity, complexity, and continuous evolution. Within this complex web, interdependent and intertwined groups of organisms and systems perform unique roles to maintain an elegant ecological balance and drive the business of life.  Whilst science has produced some incredible tools, it has also created some destructive impacts.   It’s only by understanding the impacts that we can use the tools responsibly. 

Consider the Herbivore Dung Cycle: Plants convert sunlight and environmental inputs into biomass which may be consumed by herbivores.  The partially digested ‘waste’ product, dung, is then used by other players in the ecosystem in a cyclic system so nothing is wasted. This dung becomes a resource thanks in no small part to dung beetles. These industrious insects make homes, larders and nurseries of the dung, burying it underground to benefit plant roots and their microbial allies, or scattering it with the help of hungry birds to allow the plants to see the light again!

The elegance of nature doesn’t stop here. Parasites living in animal guts release eggs into the dung.  These eggs, once spread on grass, are ingested by grazing animals, perpetuating the parasite’s life cycle. Nature, in its wisdom, has checks and balances: diverse pastures with anthelmintic (antiparasitic) plants suppress parasites, and dung beetles, attracted to parasite eggs in dung, also help reduce their numbers. This intricate cycle has functioned seamlessly for ages, until we decided, for all the right reasons, to improve it!
Enter humankind. In pursuit of more productive pastures, we’ve developed highly sugary, competitive grass strain which, often supported by manufactured inputs, outcompete many native species to increase headline food metrics such as calories and protein.  While these grasses align with our calorie-centric production goals, many of the species they outcompeted had other roles in the natural ecosystem – in this case,  plants essential for natural parasite control. As natural methods fade, we’ve developed insecticides to manage escalating parasite populations but this also has a knock on effect; these insecticide wormers, excreted in dung, further devastate dung beetle populations, disrupting natural dung processing and parasite control, driving the use of more insecticides. This cycle becomes particularly visible in smaller, more intensively grazed horse paddocks, leading to the laborious practice of ‘Poo Picking.’
I’m going to look at horses for a second, not because there is anything particularly problematic about them, but because they often illustrate this cycle well.  Horses only have one stomach so their dung is generally particularly fibrous.  In addition, for various reasons I wont go into, horse pasture is often grazed very tight.  Dung accumulation becomes a significant issue and as a result “Poo Picking”, the manual removal of horse droppings, becomes necessary.  Ironically, this  further disturbs any surviving dung beetles which dont thrive on disturbance,  breaking the natural cycle and driving the need for more chemical wormers and more poo picking! This is coupled by the fact that many horses, common with wider livestock, are wormed on a regular basis based on a diarised plan regardless of whether they need it.  Because of this, as many parasites are becoming immune to insecticides with many wormers are becoming increasingly ineffective.
The exciting thing, however, is that if we listen to natures systems, there is a practical and cost effective way forward! Fecal Egg Counting is a process whereby we can count the parasite eggs being passed into the dung and only use chemical wormers where they are really necessary.  This reduces detrimental impacts (as well as cost) and reduces the likelihood of parasites developing resistance.  If we couple this with the use of sacrificial paddocks to reduce the spread of insecticide laced dung when wormer is used, we can increase our dung beetle popluation. 
We can make this strategy more effective with the introduction of various anthelmintic (anti parasitic) plants into pastures through overseeding to further reduce parasite burdens.
Possibly unsurprisingly, dung beetle larvae seem particularly attracted to residual parasite eggs in dung creating a virtuous cycle once populations recover.  Practical observations here suggested that “Poo Picked” dung actually had higher populations of residual parasite eggs than well colonised dung that “lay where it fell”!  This suggests that practices like Poo Picking may actually unintentionally increase the survival chances of these eggs by disrupting natural predation. While occasional worming might be necessary in some circumstances, if we monitor and mitigate the impact we can make the most of the incredible systems that nature has so carefully designed.
Whilst I have, possibly unfairly, picked on horses here, largely because poo picking is rare with other animals, the principles apply more widely.  Land managers can make significant positive changes by applying simple principles:
  1. Use fecal egg counting to minimize worming, only resorting to it when absolutely necessary.
  2. Maintain a ‘sacrificial paddock’ to isolate dung contaminated by wormers.
  3. Overseed pastures to include anthelmintic plants.
  4. Limit Poo Picking or harrowing of dung, and where it really is unavoidable, leaving some healthy dung piles as habitats for dung beetles to breed in.
Clearly the effectiveness of natural controls may be nuanced, and when constrained by space and seasonal challenges, some flexibility is necessary.  Personal experience would suggest that in a well functioning environment, at peak season, the majority of horse muck in a paddock may be effectively assimilated within a few days without poo picking.
In conclusion, our brief journey into the humble yet critical world of dung beetles reveals a profound truth: Nature’s delicate balance is easily disrupted by human intervention. Yet, it is within our power to restore this balance.  If we can listen to what is going on in the ground, we not only safeguard these vital insects but also contribute to a healthier, more sustainable environment.  As stewards of the land, our actions, no matter how small, ripple through the ecosystem, demonstrating that thoughtful coexistence with nature isn’t just possible – it’s essential for our collective future.