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Feral focus

Published 22 Mar 2019 

For the first time, Bush Heritage and its partners have the ability to simultaneously control feral cats and foxes in the south coast region of Western Australia. Our efforts will help native species to rebuild their populations.

Bush Heritage ecologist Angela Sanders and Healthy Landscape Manager Simon Smale, with the Stirling Ranges in the background. Photo by William Marwick.In the Fitz-Stirling region of Western Australia, the sun beats down on a rack of sausages sweating in the sun. Moist to begin with, these sausages become wetter and more pungent with the heat. The smell can turn even the strongest of human stomachs, but it’s just the kind of delicacy that feral cats love.

“It's an awful smell,” admits Bush Heritage ecologist Angela Sanders, “and the people who drop this bait out of planes need to have really strong stomachs.”

The pungent delicacies are Eradicat baits, and they are ready to take centre stage in the first-ever integrated feral predator control program in the Fitz-Stirling region of south-west Western Australia. The baits contain a poison that most West Australian native animals have an evolved tolerance to because it occurs naturally in some endemic plants. This means they can be used to control feral cats with little risk of unintentionally harming native species.

Bush Heritage has joined forces with the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), South Coast Natural Resource Management, Fitzgerald Biosphere Group, Noongar Traditional Owners and private landowners to plan a five-year program of integrated control on multiple tenures across 37,000 hectares.

A Splendid Fairy-wren. Photo by Ben Parkhurst.The large project site is located in a 70 kilometre-long stretch of country between the Fitzgerald River and Stirling Range national parks, a fragmented landscape largely dedicated to livestock grazing, and grain and oilseed crops. With the planning complete, the groups are currently seeking the funding required to put the plan into action.

“A lot of it's been cleared for agriculture, but there are patches of remnant bushland left, so Bush Heritage has been slowly buying up properties and revegetating them with the long-term goal of reconnecting the two national parks,” says Angela. “That enables the wildlife to move around, it helps to keep country healthy and it creates more habitat, which is significant because the wheatbelt region of WA has been absolutely devastated.”

Many animals are now returning to these carefully revegetated areas, including Honey Possums, Pygmy Possums, Western Spiny-tailed Geckoes, Black- gloved Wallabies, Tammar Wallabies, Southern Emu Wrens, Malleefowl and a range of other birds.

However, these animals are threatened by Australia’s most efficient killers, feral cats and European Red Foxes. Both predators have been on Bush Heritage’s regional list of priority threats since 2004, but we have only been able to control foxes — until now.

“Feral cats are very efficient and intelligent killers. They’ll sit and wait, whereas a fox will just be fairly opportunistic. The two of them together are just a diabolical combination and they're pushing a lot of our wildlife towards extinction,” says Angela.

A feral cat stalks a Malleefowl mound on Monjebup North Reserve.“It hasn't been until the last few years really that we’ve had the ability to do an integrated program; we didn't have access to bait that was suitable for cats and you can't only control foxes because that could lead to an increase in the cat population. Now, for the very first time, we're able to control the cats and the foxes at the same time.”

DBCA regional ecologist Sarah Comer says the Bush Heritage project builds on work by the Department and its Integrated Fauna Recovery Project. The project has involved the use of Eradicat alongside species monitoring in the Fitzgerald River and Cape Arid national parks since 2010.

The monitoring data has highlighted the effectiveness of Eradicat in attracting and killing feral cats, and consequently increasing the numbers of Western Quolls, Malleefowl, Southern Scrub Robins and Dibblers (a carnivorous marsupial). But to make a real impact in the region, the Department recognises the need to move beyond the borders of its parks and work with Bush Heritage and other stakeholders to manage cats in a coordinated way.

“This project is different in that it’s a multi-stakeholder collaboration, and it will be the first time this sort of effort has been tried in WA,” says Sarah. Bush Heritage is also benefitting from Sarah’s PhD, which involves placing GPS collars on feral cats and examining their stomach contents to collect data on their diet, habitat use, movement and activity patterns, home range and genetics.

A Honey Possum is released back into native bush. Photo by William Marwick.“Her very, very preliminary results are telling us that feral cats seem to travel along river and creek corridors, tracks and fence lines, so likely that's where we'll focus on putting out our bait,” says Angela. “This bait will either be thrown out of a plane (by DBCA) or out of a vehicle, and it will be put out in a fairly high density compared to how fox baits used to be distributed.”

Bush Heritage will also carry out pre- and post- baiting monitoring of native species and feral cats to assess the effectiveness of the integrated control program. And the newly opened Michael Tichbon Field Station on our Red Moort Reserve will support this work.

“It's a really exciting project because we know the results of cat and fox baiting in the national parks, and if we can duplicate that in the area we’re working in, it'll be very good news for the native wildlife we protect,” says Angela.

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