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Publications archive - Biodiversity

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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Threat Abatement Plan for Competition and Land Degradation by Feral Rabbits

Biodiversity Group Environment Australia, 1999
0 642 2546355

Developing a National Approach to Rabbit Management

Planning for nationally coordinated action

It has not been possible to develop a reasonable estimate of current annual expenditure on rabbit control activities in Australia, although it is expected to be substantial. Landholders and land managers are legally required by the States and Territories to control rabbits on their lands and are financially responsible for that control. There is no comprehensive collation of information on the total expenditure on rabbit control by land owners. Local government agencies are also actively involved in rabbit control activities but there are few reliable data on the costs of these efforts. Undoubtedly, State and Territory agencies make a major investment in rabbit control, but details of the scale of this investment are not available. Commercial harvesters also invest in, and presumably profit from rabbit control activities.

In recent years, in addition to funding feral rabbit control on its own lands, the Commonwealth has provided funding to a range of cooperative rabbit control initiatives (Table 2). Examples of these activities include:

Table 2. Environment Australia expenditure on rabbit management for nature conservation 1992-1998.

Category

1992/93

$’000

1993/94

$’000

1994/95

$’000

1995/96

$’000

1996/97

$’000

1997/98

$’000

Ecology and control methods

150.0

287.715

254.285

204.7

200.0

Impact management and endangered species protection

6.0

18.1

70.0

449.8

376.9

13.005

Other

23.0

2.0

27.0

185.0

0.0

0.0

Total

29.0

170.1

381.715

889.085

581.6

213.005

The Commonwealth Government, through CSIRO, has also had a long involvement in a wide range of activities related to management of rabbits. The results of the research and management programs funded by the Commonwealth have provided a valuable information base from which this threat abatement plan has been developed. Comments provided in response to the publication of the draft plan, and the active involvement of an advisory group of representatives from State agencies actively involved in rabbit control, has also contributed significantly to the plan’s development. These processes have resulted in a measure of consensus on the approach prescribed to reduce the impact on native wildlife of competition and land degradation cause by rabbits.

Williams et. al. (1995) noted that most evidence indicates that successful rabbit management requires integrated management at the State, regional and local level. Effective action will depend on improved training courses to integrate rabbit management with other aspects of land management; coordinated action by State and Territory agencies to develop pest management information systems; enhanced understanding by land managers of the damage caused by rabbits; and an economic framework to assist in assessing the relative values of different control strategies. Complaints by land managers in Victoria about poor results from various rabbit control activities were found to be due to a lack of knowledge or poor understanding of how to implement rabbit control techniques (Williams et. al..1995).

Rabbits impact significantly on both primary production and the conservation of biological diversity. This highlights the importance of nationally coordinating all activities related to managing the impacts of rabbits on endangered and vulnerable species and ecological communities. Successful rabbit management requires land managers who understand the damage that rabbits cause and are committed to effective management of that damage. Since 1959 there have been a variety of group schemes to manage rabbit damage. Williams et. al. (1995) reported that the majority of successful operations have relied on the zeal and motivation of small rural communities. Successful schemes were characterised by:

Strategies

Resources will never be sufficient to deal with all rabbit management problems so the threat abatement plan must ensure the strategic allocation of resources to give the best outcome for threatened species conservation.

Localised rabbit control in specific areas of high conservation concern, particularly around populations of threatened species, will be continued as a significant component of this plan. Recovery plans for a number of species identify the rabbit as either a known or a perceived threat (Table 1). It is likely that the number of species perceived to be at risk from rabbits will increase as recovery plans are developed for more threatened plants.

Local eradication is an option for areas which meet strict criteria: the chances of reinvasion must be nil or very close to it; all animals must be accessible and at risk during the control operation; and animals must be killed at a rate higher than their ability to replace losses through breeding. Maintaining an area free from rabbits requires a sustained control operation to prevent reinvasion from surrounding rabbit infested areas, or the use of rabbit exclusion fences. As a strategy, local eradication is applicable to small islands, isolated small populations on the mainland or small mainland sites surrounded by rabbit exclusion fences.

Buffer zones may be a necessary component of managing small areas, to reduce the threat from continual reinvasion from surrounding areas replacing rabbits removed during control operations. Development of such lower density buffer zones will require the active participation of surrounding landholders and a clear identification of the benefits to be obtained by all participants.

Where local eradication is not possible there are two broad strategies which can be used for localised management of rabbits. These are sustained management, where control is implemented on a continuing regular basis, and intermittent management, which seeks to apply control at critical periods of the year when damage is greatest and short-term control will reduce impacts to acceptable levels. Intermittent control may be useful as a temporary seasonal measure at sites where competition is a seasonal threat (for example with annual plants) or where the threat is most pronounced during adverse seasonal conditions such as drought.

To ensure efficient and effective use of resources, an experimental approach will be used to determine the significance of competition and land degradation by rabbits in the decline of endangered and vulnerable species and to identify the level of control necessary for their recovery. By approaching local control on an experimental basis the true significance of competition and land degradation by rabbits as a threat to these species can be elucidated. If rabbits are a significant threat then this will justify expanding rabbit control activities to other sites where the species occurs. Alternatively, if rabbit control is shown to be of little relevance to recovery of the species, efforts can be re-directed to those activities that are effective in promoting its recovery.

Regional management, which focuses on key areas where maximum benefits can be derived from reducing the impacts of rabbits on a range of species, is a central element of this plan. Regional control programs are designed to provide protection to a number of at-risk species and to provide a substantial expansion of available habitat. Broad scale control of rabbits at this level of resolution requires a substantial investment of resources.

Regional management is well suited to an adaptive management approach as it can accommodate different experimental control techniques within a broadly comparable area. A focus on regional management will also provide a mechanism for integrating rabbit control with other biodiversity conservation actions such as Bushcare and other programs funded through the Natural Heritage Trust.

High priority must be given to monitoring the outcomes of rabbit control in terms of conservation benefits derived. Ineffective control may result in high harvest rates but little reduction in competition and land degradation due to rabbits maintaining a sustainably high reproductive rate.

Ranking areas for priority action

Identification of those species and regions that will most benefit from coordinated rabbit control activities is clearly important for improved protection of endangered species and conservation of biological diversity. The ability to identify priority areas for control on primary production land based on an analysis of measures of rabbit impacts, distribution and density is also critical to effective and economical management of rabbits in these areas.

The development of recovery plans will identify species that are known or perceived to be threatened by competition and land degradation by rabbits, and areas of habitat critical for the survival of these species. In terms of national action to abate the rabbit threat, implementation of recovery plans for these species must be accorded the highest priority. Local community groups and land owners will be encouraged to coordinate rabbit control activities for their region to promote both primary production and biodiversity benefits.

Available resources are not sufficient to fully implement all the control measures identified in recovery plans. Areas will then need to be ranked on a nationally consistent basis to ensure that decisions about funding for control activities can maximise the conservation benefits to be derived. An agreed national methodology for ranking areas should cover protecting and facilitating the expansion of existing populations of threatened species, and preparing areas for translocation.

A system to weight areas regarding the risk and the possibility of reducing that risk will be developed in order to allocate resources to areas where rabbit management is most needed. Parkes et. al. (1996) describe a system developed in New Zealand to decide priority areas for investment in feral goat control. This is a complex process that involves scoring native species in an area according to their conservation value and then weighting these scores for the threat posed to the species. Using the New Zealand system as a guide, procedures for prioritising areas for rabbit management in Australia will be refined. Priorities for investment of Commonwealth resources will be selected using the following criteria:

Published June 1999 by Environment Australia under the Natural Heritage Trust.

Commonwealth of Australia