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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Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time.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

Introduction

The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) was released on the Australian mainland in the second half of the 19th century (Myers et. al. 1989; Stodart and Parer, 1988). Wild rabbit populations are now distributed over a large part of the Australian mainland, in Tasmania and on many offshore islands (Armstrong, 1982; Flux and Fullagar, 1992). It is estimated that rabbits now inhabit an area of some 4.5 million square kilometres (Myers et. al. 1989) or about 60 per cent of Australia. Wild rabbits are a declared pest under relevant legislation in all States and Territories. Landholders are thus obliged to control rabbits on their land and are financially responsible for control.

The rabbit’s success in Australia can be attributed to a number of factors. These include small body size, which allows selection of high quality feed under favourable conditions (Myers and Bults, 1977) and the use of warrens, which offer protection from predators and climatic extremes (Hall and Myers, 1978; Parer and Libke, 1985). The species also has high fecundity (Gilbert et. al. 1987) and is able to colonise modified habitats (Croft, 1990).

The first response to the wild rabbit’s spread during the 19th century was the introduction of legislation by all States and Territories to make rabbit control compulsory. Williams et. al. (1995), in reviewing the development of rabbit control practices in Australia, noted that early rabbit management efforts failed in Australia because:

Since its introduction, the rabbit has affected Australia’s flora and fauna profoundly. It has been shown that rabbits inhibit the regeneration of native vegetation (Crisp, 1978; Lange and Graham, 1983; Cooke, 1987); compete with native fauna for food (Dawson and Ellis, 1979) and shelter (Martin and Sobey, 1983; Priddel et. al. 1995); support populations of introduced canids and felids (Catling, 1988); and cause soil erosion (McManus, 1979; Norman, 1988). The decline and extinction of many of Australia’s terrestrial mammals that weigh between 35 and 5500 grams (sometimes referred to as critical weight range species), particularly in the arid and semi-arid zones, was associated with the rabbit’s introduction (Calaby, 1969).

Many of the mammals used by Aboriginal communities in central Australia either disappeared altogether or became exceedingly rare. A review of recovery plans approved under the Act, and others currently in draft form, has identified the rabbit as a confirmed or perceived threat to many listed endangered and vulnerable (threatened) species (Table 1). For these reasons, ‘competition and land degradation by feral rabbits’ is listed as a key threatening process under Schedule 3 of the Commonwealth Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 (the Act).

While key threatening processes are listed because of their impacts on listed threatened species and communities, rabbits are widely acknowledged as adversely affecting a much broader range of species and ecosystems. Best practice management of rabbits must therefore involve action to reduce the threat not only to listed threatened species, but also to all native species.

For each process listed in Schedule 3 of the Act, a nationally coordinated threat abatement plan must be prepared and implemented. The Act prescribes the content of a threat abatement plan and the mechanisms by which plans are to be prepared, approved and published. Where a threatening process occurs in more than one jurisdiction, the Commonwealth must seek the cooperation of the relevant States and Territories in the joint preparation and implementation of a threat abatement plan.

Table 1. Species listed on Schedule 1 of the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 for which rabbits are a known or perceived threat.

Known Threat

Scientific Name

Common Name

Reference

Birds

Pterodroma leucoptera leucoptera

Gould's Petrel

(Priddel, D. & Carlile., N. 1996)

Mammals

Macrotis lagotis

Greater Bilby

(Southgate, R., 1997)

Plants

Acacia insolita subsp. recurva

(Stack, G. & Brown., A., 1997)

Caladenia amoena

(Backhouse, G., et. al. 1998)

Caladenia bryceana bryceana

(Holland, E. et al. 1996)

Caladenia busselliana

(Papenfus, D., et al. 1997)

Caladenia elegans

(Kershaw, K., et al. 1996)

Caladenia gladiolata

(Bates, R. 1994)

Caladenia hastata

(Hill, J., et. al. 1998)

Caladenia viridescens

(Papenfus, D. 1997)

Conostylis micrantha

(Holland, E., et. al. 1996)

Cynanchum elegans

(Matthes, M. & Nash, S. 1993)

Darwinia carnea

(Holland, E., et. al. 1996)

Grevillea maccutcheonii

(Papenfus, D., 1996)

Hemiandra gardneri

(Holland, E., et. al. 1997)

Hemiandra rutilans

(Papenfus, D., 1996)

Pterostylis sp. Northampton

(Papenfus, D., 1996)

Thesium australe

(Griffith, S.J. 1996)

Verticordia fimbrilepis

(Mitchell, M., et. al. 1997)

Perceived Threat

(Table 1 continued)

Scientific Name

Common Name

Reference

Amphibians

Philoria frosti

Baw Baw Frog

(Hollis, G.J. 1997)

Birds

Geopsittacus occidentalis

Night Parrot

(Blyth, J. 1996)

#Leipoa ocellata

Malleefowl

(Benshemesh, J. 1998)

Neophema chrysogaster

Orange-bellied Parrot

(Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team. 1998)

Mammals

*Bettongia lesueur

Burrowing Bettong

(Short, J. and Turner, B. 1993)

#Burramys parvus

Mountain Pygmy-possum

(Broome, L.S., 1996)

Dasycercus cristicauda

Mulgara

(Masters, P. and L Baker, 1996)

#Dasyuroides byrnei

Kowari

(Lim, L., 1992)

Dasyurus geoffroii

Western Quoll

(Orell, P. and Morris, K., 1994)

Onychogalea fraenata

Bridled Nailtail Wallaby

(Clancy, T.F., 1994)

Petrogale penicillata

Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby

(Hill, F.A.R., 1991)

Pseudomys fieldi

Djoongari

(Morris, K., et al., 1997)

Plants

Acacia cretacea

(Jusaitis, M., 1994)

Acacia rhamphophylla

(Stack, G., 1997)

Banksia cuneata

(Stace, H. & Coates, D.J. 1991)

Caladenia caudata

(Ziegeler, D., 1997)

Caladenia rigida

(Bates, R., 1996)

Daviesia bursarioides

(Papenfus, D., 1996)

Eremophila nivea

(Papenfus, D., 1997)

Eremophila viscida

(Richmond, G. & Coates, D., 1995)

Eucalyptus rhodantha

(Kelly, A.E. and Coates, D.J., 1995)

Grevillea scapigera

(Rossetto, M., et al. 1995)

Prostanthera eurybioides

(Jusaitis, M., 1994)

Pterostylis gibbosa

(Muston, R. & von Krusenstierna, A., 1994)

Tetratheca deltoidea

(Holland, E., et al. 1996)

#Rabbits attract predators to these native species.
*A recovery plan has not yet been written for this species.

Rabbits occur on Commonwealth land such as Department of Defence properties and Commonwealth-managed National Parks and reserves. On a national scale, however, control of rabbits on Commonwealth land is only a minor part of the effort involved in conserving endangered or vulnerable species threatened by rabbits. State and Territory agencies responsible for agricultural pest control have a long history of practical on-ground rabbit control. The CSIRO and other institutions have researched aspects of rabbit ecology and biology relevant to management. They have also researched RCD and myxomatosis, diseases that continue to have a major impact on rabbit numbers. It is largely through the efforts of these groups that major technical and strategic advances have been made in managing the destructive impacts of rabbits on both primary production and the natural environment.

Fundamental to the approach taken in this plan is the recognition that rabbits cannot be eradicated from their Australian range with the techniques and financial resources currently available. Abatement of the threat rabbits pose must first be undertaken in discrete, manageable areas, selected according to national priorities. Rabbit control will have to continue for the foreseeable future and therefore must make the best use of available resources.

This plan sets out in broad terms the scope for national action and the allotment of Commonwealth resources. It is intended that the plan will lead to a change in managing the impact of rabbits on endangered species, producing a more focused and strategic broad scale approach to reducing those impacts.

The Act requires that this plan be reviewed at intervals of no more than five years. At the end of the first five years, on-ground action will have increased protection for endangered species at high priority sites. The plan will also have assisted in documenting advances in knowledge, techniques and practice for reducing the rabbit threat. The activities and priorities under the threat abatement plan will need to evolve with, and adapt to, changes as they occur. Towards the end of the period, the review required by the legislation will examine the plan and the success or otherwise of management actions undertaken. Recommendations from the review will then be used to prepare another threat abatement plan for the next five-year phase.

During each five-year phase knowledge will grow, and efficiency and effectiveness of threat abatement actions should improve through information from well-monitored programs. The plan’s success will require a long-term commitment of resources by all levels of government, landholders and community groups. By taking a measured, stepwise approach, recognising the realistic limitations and opportunities that exist and ensuring that experience and research are applied to further improve rabbit management, the threat abatement plan process will ensure a responsible use of public resources and give the best outcome for wildlife.

The success of this threat abatement plan will depend on cooperation between all key stakeholders, including land owners and land managers, community groups, local government, State and Territory conservation and pest management agencies, and the Commonwealth Government and its agencies. Success will only be achieved if all participants are prepared to allocate adequate resources to achieving effective on-ground control of rabbits at critical sites and in critical regions, improving the effectiveness of control programs and measuring and assessing outcomes. The programs of the Natural Heritage Trust will contribute to implementing the plan.

Published June 1999 by Environment Australia under the Natural Heritage Trust.
For further information please email invasives@environment.gov.au
Commonwealth of Australia