Cat-proof fence spares critters the Last Post

Cat-proof fence spares critters the Last Post
Mt Gibson
Field Programs
Science: surveys and research | Feral cat and fox control

The Australian, 5 September 2015

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Deep in sheep country northeast of Perth, a former oil and gas executive has fenced a vast tract of woodland to keep animals out.

The cat-proof enclosure that Tim Allard has built with colleagues and supporters at Mount Gibson is part of a fast-growing network of sanctuaries across Australia giving protection to ­endangered species. “Out here fences have always been for keeping animals in so this is a bit unusual,” says Mr Allard, operations manager at the non-profit Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

There are now six Australian mammals that exist only inside fenced sanctuaries or on cat-free islands such as Faure Island in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

The 78sq km enclosure at Mount Gibson is the fourth built by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. Donations permitting, it plans to complete four more within 2½ years — at Newhaven in the Northern Territory, Pilliga and Mallee Cliffs in NSW and at Astrebla Downs in Queensland.

Mr Allard is in charge of shifting truckloads of steel and wire to the bush to create each safe zone. The resourcefulness he learned running a contracting company in the oil and gas sector has been useful when building animal sanctuaries in remote locations.

At Mount Gibson, he turned an old cool room into a research station. And the pile of rubbish and broken down vehicles on the old sheep station is only half-jokingly called “Bunnings” because it is a source of building materials.

The latest sanctuary, a five-hour drive from Perth, cost just under $2 million — volunteers and staff worked together to convert 345km of plain wire and steel netting and more than 4000 posts into a 43km electrified fence. A wire “skirt” at the top of the 1.8m-high fence makes it unappealing for cats that may contemplate climbing it, as does the 8000-watt pulse powered by solar panels.

“I can assure you the charge on the fence works quite well,” says Mr Allard, after getting a shock from it while attaching a banner for this weekend’s official Mount Gibson sanctuary opening.

The AWC is racing to roll out the fenced sanctuaries in the knowledge that Australia has ­already lost 30 mammals and a further 60 are threatened. Excluding bats, a third of Australia’s mammals are now threatened. Feral cats are the No 1 threat.

The AWC, which runs mostly on philanthropic donations, will bring some of the most endangered animals to Mount Gibson. This includes the numbat, WA’s fauna emblem but on the brink of extinction. The first of the nine species to be released inside the safe zone is the woylie — its numbers have declined from 200,000 to less than 20,000 in 15 years.

AWC’s chief executive Atticus Fleming says the inland region of southwest Australia is a global epicentre for mammal extinctions — the region has lost about half of its mammal species in the past 200 years.

“I think what is special about this is we are returning the Australian bush to what it was a couple of hundred years ago before foxes and cats,” he says. “Early ­explorers saw small mammals in abundance and this is what we will see again in this part of Mount Gibson — the Australian bush as it should be. In the long term, we want a solution that will remove feral cats from the Australian landscape, but we might be waiting decades for that.

“In the meantime, these large fenced areas will be the difference between survival and extinction for many mammals.”

Ecologists at the AWC carefully assess the habitat of each area they plan to fence to make sure it is suitable for native mammals, then they trap and shoot the feral cats inside. Inside the fenced area at Mount Gibson, seven feral cats were killed. That land can now sustain about 13,000 native animals that could not otherwise have thrived there. The numbers are small, but crucial. For example, up to 3060 endangered banded hare-wallabies can live at the sanctuary, which represents a 56 per cent increase in its global population.