Feral cats – they’re so un-Australian

Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions on the planet, with 29 since European settlement. That’s about 10% of Australia’s original mammal wildlife, including mice, bandicoots, potoroos, bettongs, rats, a wallaby and one of Australia’s only two bilby species – and marauding moggies are the principal culprits.

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A feral cat and prey. Source: The State of Victoria

The Action Plan for Australian Mammals, published earlier this year, represents the first assessment of the conservation status of mammals across Australia – it identifies feral cats as the most significant threat to their survival.

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John Gould print image of the pig-footed bandicoot – a species extinction largely attributed to feral cat predation. Source: Museum of Victoria

Predation by feral cats is now listed as a key threatening process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), which specifically identifies 35 bird species, 36 mammals, seven reptiles and three amphibians to which feral cats represent a specific threat.

Evidence also suggests that feral cats are on the verge of causing a second wave of extinctions in Australia’s north – the nation’s sole remaining landscape reflecting Australian wildlife prior to the arrival of Europeans.

You get the picture – one of only two continents in the world with no native cat species is now the world’s largest cattery.

Time is running out, but for whom?

It seems shameful that feral cats are still able to run riot in a relatively stable and wealthy country, which without doubt has the capacity to deal with the issue. So what’s being done about it?

Last Wednesday, the Federal Environment Minster, Greg Hunt, set out a plan to halt the loss of mammals in Australia by 2020. At the centre of this plan is a pledge to eradicate feral cats.

Presumably this is because the Australian Government recognises that if it is going to make any progress towards meeting its 2020 biodiversity targets, signed up to under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), then feral cats have to go. All hail the power of the multilateral agreement.

This pledge has been met with a mixed response. Some describe Hunt as a hero, others question the Australian Government’s motivations, the likelihood of achieving the task, and in particular, the current proposals to use a poison bait called Curiosity.

Hunt believes this approach “has the potential to make a real difference to the protection and recovery of our native species”. The bait contains a toxin that restricts the flow of oxygen in the bloodstream. Placed within a small piece of food, it is ‘less likely’ to be eaten by wild animals because unlike cats, they tend to nibble their food, resulting in rejection of the bait.

However, tests have yet to demonstrate that this approach won’t harm other animals. It is curious then, that the success of the Australian Government’s strategy to eradicate feral cats relies quite heavily on the use of an unapproved poison bait.

Landscape management

In truth, there may be sites where a program of targeted baiting could be successful in reducing feral cat populations. However, it is unlikely to work in isolation. Australia is an enormous continent – baiting simply isn’t feasible.

What’s needed is a range of techniques to deal with feral cats, including the broader management of Australia’s landscapes. The Victorian Government is currently progressing with plans to introduce the Tasmanian devil into Wilsons Promontory National Park.

Tasmanian Devil. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tasmanian devil. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The proposition here is that this top carnivore will compete with feral cats for food and nesting space, and may also take their young, reducing feral cat numbers.

Interestingly, Hunt recently acknowledged that he had not heard about the Victorian Government’s proposals, which perhaps suggests that Australia has yet to develop a coordinated national approach to deal with feral cats.

The cat-proof fence

Another approach that has proved successful in recent years is the establishment of a network of cat-proof enclosures. The AWC manages 23 properties, covering three million hectares of cat free land, with successful results for native species. One out of every five wild greater bilbys, and one of every three numbats now live within these enclosures.

The AWC is currently constructing a 43 km fence to create the largest cat free area on mainland Australia, with the aim being to reintroduce nine of Australia’s most endangered mammal species.

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Cat-proof fence at Kakadu National Park. Source: National Environmental Research Program

The message here is that when feral cats are removed, wildlife bounces back. I leave you with a final quote from the Chief Executive of the AWC, Atticus Flemming:

“…if we remove feral cats from the landscape, we will see massive increases in the numbers of native animals… You wander at night through those areas where we’ve eradicated feral cats, and it’s like stepping back 200 years. The bush is alive. There are bilbys everywhere, bettongs everywhere, bridled nailtail wallabies. The ground is moving with little animals. That is what the bush must have been like before there were foxes and cats.”

Sounds purrfect to me.

About Tom Evans

Tom is a Conservation Scientist with a background in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). He holds an MSc in Conservation Science from Imperial College London, and is currently undertaking a PhD at University College London (UCL), funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). His research focuses on the identification and management of impacts associated with invasive alien species. All views expressed are his own, and do not represent the views of UCL or NERC.
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