Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) has completed the total eradication of feral cats and foxes from a vast 9,570-hectare fenced area at Mallee Cliffs National Park, creating the largest feral predator-free safe haven on mainland Australia and triggering the largest re-wilding project ever to be undertaken in New South Wales.
This major milestone was achieved as part of AWC’s partnership with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). The partnership – the first of its kind in Australia – involves restoring at least 10 locally-extinct mammals to Mallee Cliffs under the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program.
Supporting one of the most important threatened species projects in the country, Environment Minister Matt Kean said this project alone will see at least 10 species, currently listed as extinct in NSW, returned to the wild.
“Feral cats and foxes are the primary reason why Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world. Feral cats alone kill 1.4 billion native animals across the country every year,” Mr Kean said.
Establishing the feral-free area at Mallee Cliffs has been a major undertaking, involving construction of a 37.2-kilometre fence, consisting of 8,400 posts, more than half a million clips, 378 kilometres of wire and 42 kilometres of mesh. Although this is one of the State’s longest feral predator-proof fences, AWC completed construction in just 12 weeks. This was followed by a prolonged period of intensive feral predator eradication, with one sly interloper outfoxing AWC’s feral animal control officers for six months.
“We began the eradication program in August last year, but didn’t trap that last fox until February,” said Bruce Summerfield, AWC’s Operations Manager at Mallee Cliffs.
“We also had some foxes digging under one part of the fence so we installed about 11 kilometres of skirt extension into the ground. That stopped them in their tracks.”
Mr Summerfield said the last fox was finally trapped on 20 February, but to ensure the area was indeed feral predator-free, months of intensive monitoring was undertaken after this.
“The team did an awesome job over four months of monitoring, sweeping more than 1,000 kilometres of tracks to check for feral cat and fox prints. We also deployed motion camera traps both inside and outside of the fence,” Mr Summerfield said.
“Even though this project is still in its infancy, it’s already delivering a positive ecological ‘return’ for the people of New South Wales” Tim Allard, AWC’s Chief Executive said.
In October 2019, Bilbies were released inside a specially designed 480-hectare breeding area while the larger 9,570 hectare refuge was being eradicated of feral predators. Monitoring by AWC ecologists shows the Bilbies are in good condition and already increasing in numbers. The reintroduced Bilbies will soon be released into the massive 9,570 hectare feral predator-free safe-haven – now the largest on mainland Australia. The Bilbies will soon be joined by Greater Stick-nest Rats , and in coming years by Western Quoll, Red-tailed Phascogale, Numbat, Western Barred Bandicoot, Bridled Nailtail Wallaby, Burrowing Bettong, Brush-tailed Bettong and Mitchell’s Hopping-mouse. Most of these species have been absent from NSW national parks for almost a century – and nearly all are threatened with extinction across their entire range.
“This is the most ambitious re-wilding program ever undertaken in New South Wales and we feel very proud to be a part of it,” Mr Allard said.
AWC Chief Science Officer Dr John Kanowski says that Australia’s mammals urgently need special conservation attention. Australia is ahead of the pack in terms of mammal extinctions – we have the worst rate on the planet – with predation by feral cats and foxes being the primary driver of native mammal extinctions in this country.
“Through projects like this one at Mallee Cliffs, AWC is demonstrating that the eradication of foxes and cats is a critical part of mammal conservation,” Dr Kanowski said.
“By putting Australia’s digging animals back into the landscape, we’re not only halting the decline of Australia’s wildlife, we’re restoring important ecosystem processes as well.”
Bilbies are prodigious diggers, with each individual turning around 20 tons of soil per annum. By burrowing and turning the soil, they help to retain moisture and nutrients and disperse seeds and spores.
“Conservation is getting these animals back in the landscape because they all contribute. They’ve been part of this country for millions and millions of years and they’ve only been gone for a century. People forget that.”
“We are the custodians of Australia’s unique natural capital,” Mr Allard said.
“This project represents an incredibly important opportunity to stop the decline and restore Australia’s wildlife populations for future generations of Australians.”