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Bush lovers joining the fight against feral cats

Published 20 Mar 2013 

It’s not just our supporters who are helping scientists to protect native Australian animals on Bush Heritage reserves – schoolteachers are on board too

Teachlive teachers doing conservation field workTeachers from Earthwatch's TeachLive program with research assistants at Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo by Caroline Bayer

By Vanessa Murray

The sky overhead is blushing a deep and gentle blue, the air still and tranquil as the day slowly dawns. It's only six in the morning, but already a team of committed scientists and volunteers are up and about, preparing to traverse a landscape rich in reds and greens and browns.

This was the scene that volunteer and schoolteacher Olivia Baran woke up to every morning for ten days last October, when she joined a group of scientists and volunteers at your Charles Darwin Reserve, on the northern edge of the Western Australian wheat belt.

The team was helping with a trial of a new bait, Eradicat, a tool designed to help reduce the damage caused to native animals by feral cats, as part of a partnership between Bush Heritage, Edith Cowan University and Earthwatch Australia.

Olivia was one of hundreds of teachers who volunteered as part of an Earthwatch initiative, which places schoolteachers on conservation research projects and allows them to take their experiences back to the classroom.

Fat-tailed dunnartFat tailed dunnart. Photo: Caroline Bayer

A unique opportunity

Like the many Bush Heritage supporters who recently donated to enable to our efforts to manage feral rabbits on other reserves such as Boolcoomatta and Bon Bon Station, Olivia is passionate about Australian native wildlife.

"We dug in pitfall traps and checked them in the early morning before the heat of the day. We were trying to get an idea of what native species the cats are preying on, and their abundance on the reserve," says Olivia.

"It was just incredible to see and handle the animals up close in their environment" recalls Olivia, who is particularly interested in reptiles. "We found a lot of dunnarts and hopping mice, but the highlight for me was finding a few thorny devils."

"It was wonderful to get out into the beauty of remote Australia, and a great opportunity to meet people with a similar passion for maintaining our unique biodiversity," she continues.

Why target feral cats?

Nocturnal and carnivorous, feral cats prey on small- to medium-sized native mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. They have been implicated in the extinction of 22 Australian mammals, and threaten many more including some that live among the salt bushes and wildflower plains of Charles Darwin Reserve.

"The history of extensive clearing throughout south-west Western Australia makes the reserve an important refuge for animals that were once widespread in the region," says Bush Heritage ecologist Dr Matt Appleby.

An innovative approach

"Field experiments have shown that broad-scale aerial application of Eradicat is capable of controlling feral cats, foxes and wild dogs," says Tim Doherty, the PhD student at Edith Cowan University responsible for the trial.

Aerial baiting is an expensive exercise however. "We believe hand-baiting may provide an effective on-ground solution to both the feral cat and fox problem at properties like Charles Darwin Reserve."

During Stage Two of the trial, Tim's team will return to the reserve to capture, collar and release feral cats. The GPS-enabled collars will enable the cats' movements to be monitored, so that the team can work out the most effective places to lay the Eradicat bait. The baits will then be laid by hand in one section of the reserve, with an unbaited "control" area in another to test the impact of the baits.

Mitchel's hopping mouseMitchel's hopping mouse. Photo: Tim Doherty

If Eradicat is found to be effective, Healthy Landscape Manager Luke Bayley will continue to lay Eradicat by hand along a 200km network of tracks, on an ongoing basis. Bush Heritage and Edith Cowan University will share their findings with neighbouring landholders and the wider community, in the hope of integrating feral predator controls in the region.

Mitchell's hopping mouse

The Mitchell's hopping mouse is a small sandy-brown rodent that grows up to about 60g, with white chest hairs and a pale underbelly. Its large back legs and long, brushy tail give it the strength and balance it needs to travel - by hopping - at speed. A nocturnal species found in southern SA, north-western Vic. and southern WA, the mouse feeds on roots, green leaves and seeds, and is one of several native small mammals that was found at Charles Darwin Reserve in October.

Thank you for joining the fight

Your support of feral cat management at Charles Darwin Reserve, and at reserves across the country, is another important step towards protecting native animals like the Mitchell's hopping mouse across Australia. Thank you!