Department of the Environment

About us | Contact us | Publications

Header imagesHeader imagesHeader images

Publications archive - Biodiversity

Disclaimer

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Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time.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

Threat Abatement Objectives and Actions

The aims of this plan are to promote the recovery of endangered or vulnerable native species and communities and prevent further species and communities from becoming endangered by reducing competition and land degradation caused by rabbits to non-threatening levels. These aims will be achieved by:

The key performance indicator will be the degree of security achieved for species or communities that are currently or potentially threatened by competition or land degradation caused by rabbits.

Key objectives for this plan are to:

Objective 1: Promote the recovery of species and ecological communities that are endangered or vulnerable due to competition by rabbits.

Objective 2: Arrest land degradation caused by rabbits and promote recovery of degraded areas to a state which maximises the chances of long-term survival of endangered and vulnerable native species and ecological communities affected by such degradation.

Objective 3: Eradicate rabbits from islands or isolated areas where they are a threat to endangered or vulnerable native species or ecological communities.

Objective 4: Improve the effectiveness and humaneness of rabbit control methods.

Objective 5: Improve knowledge and understanding of rabbit impacts and interactions with other species.

Objective 6: Improve knowledge and understanding of the role of rabbits as a contributor to land degradation.

Objective 7: Communicate the results of the threat abatement plan actions to management agencies, landholders and the public.

Objective 8: Effectively coordinate rabbit control activities.

Competition and land degradation caused by rabbits are identified under the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 as threatening native species and ecological communities. Rabbits are also a significant threat to primary production. Cost-effective and efficient control measures will, wherever possible, be applied through regionally coordinated management partnerships involving landholders, community groups and all levels of government. Management of rabbits will be integrated with other natural resource management activities and, where relevant, with the management of other pest species identified as contributing to key threatening processes.

Rabbit management

Objective 1: Promote the recovery of species and ecological communities that are endangered or vulnerable due to competition by rabbits.

Objective 2: Arrest land degradation caused by rabbits and promote recovery of degraded areas to a state which maximises the chances of long-term survival of endangered and vunerable native species and ecological communities affected by such degradation.

Local control plans

A number of listed endangered and vulnerable species have been identified as being significantly threatened by the impacts of rabbits. Recovery plans for these species identify control of rabbits as a necessary component of the recovery process. Implementation of local control plans in areas identified as critical habitat for these species must be a top priority of this threat abatement plan.

Rabbits together with feral goats can adversely affect both animals (through competition for scarce resources such as food or water) and plants (by direct consumption). Direct competition by rabbits has been identified as a known or perceived threat for a small number of listed native animals (Table 1). Rabbits are a known or perceived threat for a much larger number of plant species. For those species where competition and land degradation by rabbits have been identified as a perceived threat, there is a need to test whether the perception is valid. Development and implementation of recovery plans for these species should determine the significance of rabbits as a threat to these species and the level of control necessary to secure their recovery. Rabbit control activities promoted under these recovery plans must be designed to help quantify the significance of the threat posed by rabbits compared to other threats to the species concerned.

Translocation has been an important strategy for facilitating the expansion of existing populations of endangered species. Implementation of local control plans in areas designated as translocation sites for such species should be a high priority and be consistent with the recovery plans for these species.

Actions

Implement local rabbit control for species where competition by rabbits is a known threat.

Implement local rabbit control programs in areas designated as translocation sites for species where competition by rabbits is a known threat.

Implement experimental rabbit control programs in areas of critical habitat for species perceived to be threatened by competition by rabbits, to determine the significance of the threat and the level of control necessary to secure recovery.

Identify incentives to promote and maintain on-ground rabbit control on private or leasehold lands that contain populations of endangered species or where control is necessary to provide a buffer zone around a population of a listed species.

Implement experimental rabbit control programs in ecological communities perceived to be threatened by land degradation caused by rabbits, to determine the significance of the threat and the level of control necessary to ameliorate the degradation.

The Commonwealth will make funds available, through the Endangered Species Program and other programs of the Natural Heritage Trust, to support projects involving local rabbit control. Commonwealth funding will assist the development of local partnerships, where appropriate, to integrate management of rabbits on both public and private lands. Where local rabbit control confirms that competition or land degradation caused by rabbits is a significant threat to particular endangered or vulnerable native species or ecological communities this plan will promote the expansion and integration of local site specific control plans into regional control plans. As well, this plan will promote direct links with other relevant biodiversity conservation initiatives in the region.

Regional control plans

Regional control plans are designed to provide protection to, or to provide a substantial expansion of suitable habitat for, a number of native species threatened by the same process or to address broad scale threats such as land degradation attributable to a particular species. In the case of a species such as the rabbit that has deleterious impacts on both conservation of biological diversity and on primary production, regional control programs provide a means of defining agreed outcomes across land tenures and coordinating action to achieve these outcomes. Regional control plans are also valuable in preparing sites for reintroductions of native species to areas within their former range.

Control of rabbits at a regional level requires a substantial investment of resources. Successful control of the impacts of rabbits on conservation of biological diversity will be difficult to achieve and very expensive in the absence of a coordinated effort involving both primary production lands and conservation areas. This is because of the potential reinvasion of those areas where endangered or vulnerable species are found.

South Australia is attempting to control rabbits at a regional level under Bounceback 2000 which is developing an integrated approach to the control of foxes, feral cats, goats and rabbits, involving national parks, neighbouring landholders and community groups. The continued implementation of this regional control plan will identify the potential effectiveness of broadscale control of rabbits using existing technology. It will also substantially enhance the ability of land managers to develop and apply an integrated approach to feral animal control, which must be a priority of this threat abatement plan.

Actions

Continue implementation of Bounceback 2000 in South Australia to facilitate reintroductions of locally extinct species and to minimise competition with existing remnant populations of threatened species.

Support regional organisations, community groups and government agencies in collaboratively developing and implementing regional rabbit control programs to address problems attributable to competition or land degradation caused by rabbits.

The Commonwealth will make funds available, through the programs of the Natural Heritage Trust, to support the further development of regional rabbit control programs. Where possible, management of rabbits on both public and private lands will be integrated with other regional biodiversity conservation measures through the development of regional partnerships.

Objective 3: Eradicate rabbits from islands or isolated areas where they are a threat to endangered or vulnerable native species or ecological communities.

Rabbit free areas

Rabbits have probably occupied their entire potential range throughout mainland Australia and are known to be present on a number of islands of which Tasmania and Kangaroo Island are the largest. The threat posed by rabbits to conservation of species on these islands should be reviewed to determine priorities for eradication.

It is essential that rabbits continue to be excluded from those islands where they do not occur. The risk of rabbits naturally dispersing to islands is considered very low. Deliberate introductions to continental islands are now also an unlikely event. Eradication of rabbits from those islands where they currently occur is therefore an option which is likely to result in long-term conservation benefits for species at risk from competition or land degradation attributable to rabbits.

Actions

Review the species and conservation values at risk from rabbits on those islands where they occur and identify priorities for eradication.

Identify isolated rabbit populations and determine whether there are any endangered or threatened species present in these areas that would justify eradication of the rabbits.

Develop and implement contingency plans to contain and exterminate any incursion by rabbits into isolated areas with high conservation values.

Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget to enable staff to work with relevant State authorities to implement these actions. Identification of islands of high conservation value will be based on existing data. Additional costs of these actions will be determined by the results of the risk analysis.

Innovative and humane control methods

Objective 4: Improve the effectiveness and humaneness of rabbit control methods.

Fumigation

Fumigation, using either pressure or diffusion methods, is useful as a control measure where warrens cannot be ripped or as a follow up to warren ripping programs where the ripping machinery is no longer available or where re-opened entrances are few or widely dispersed. Williams et. al. (1995) note that the two fumigants currently used for treating rabbit warrens cause suffering. The use of chloropicrin, in particular, is considered to be inhumane.

Action

Identify and review the humaneness of potential new fumigants to find a humane replacement for chloropicrin that is cheap and effective.

Fencing

Stock fencing can be used to assist rabbit control. Rabbit proof fences are particularly useful where control is to be applied to one side of the fence only. They may be used as perimeter fences on properties or reserve areas, to protect high value sites, or to enclose areas where rabbits are difficult to control.

A (1994) review of predator proof fence designs highlighted the need for a comprehensive evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of different fence designs, to ensure that future investment in fences is directed towards the most effective designs. A similar review is warranted to assess the effectiveness of stock proof fencing for managing rabbits on farms and excluding rabbits from areas of high conservation value. Exclusion fencing is a particularly useful means of providing interim protection to species that cannot move, such as plants. Longer term protection may involve broad scale reduction in rabbit numbers to restore normal ecosystem functioning.

Actions

Evaluate existing fence designs for their suitability for excluding rabbits from areas of high conservation value and disseminate this information to land managers.

Identify the most effective fence designs for particular habitats or topographies and determine the relative cost effectiveness of individual fence designs as a means of either enclosing or excluding rabbits and protecting local populations of endangered species.

Fertility control

Rabbits have a very high rate of reproduction with the average number of young produced per year varying from 15 in sub-alpine Australia to as many as 53 recorded at a New Zealand site (Williams et. al. 1995). Despite the high rate of reproduction, high mortality rates may limit the expansion of populations. Wood (1980) reported survival of animals to nine months of age may be as low as 0.25 per cent or as high as 12 per cent.

Fertility control based on developing sterility through an auto-immune response to reproductive proteins or hormones (immunocontraception) has the potential to provide a target specific form of fertility control suitable for use on wild populations. Some scientists and wildlife managers remain sceptical about the likely success and effectiveness of this approach and the obstacles to achieving a workable method are considerable. Despite the acknowledged difficulties, the need to develop flexibility in the available range of rabbit control methods justifies continuing investigations into immunocontraception.

Action

Continue investigations into the development of a safe, effective immunocontraceptive agent that may be delivered in a bait.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Biological Control of Vertebrate Pest Populations began a major program of research on the potential uses of immunocontraception in 1992. Work has concentrated on the fox and the rabbit, although mouse fertility has now been included. Funding support for work on foxes has been provided through the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust.

 

Information

Objective 5: Improve knowledge and understanding of rabbit impacts and interactions with other species.

Objective 6: Improve knowledge and understanding of the role of rabbits as a contributor to land degradation.

Documenting rabbit impacts

Ensuring that field experience and research are applied to further improve rabbit control programs is an important element of this plan. There is a recognised need to improve understanding of the impact of rabbits on a range of native species, especially those native plants currently listed as endangered or vulnerable, and determine whether this is compatible with the long-term conservation of these species. In addition, the relative contribution to land degradation that is directly attributable to rabbits has not been determined.

Adaptive management approaches that experimentally test different control techniques will be encouraged. By measuring the effectiveness of different control strategies in achieving recovery of threatened species, our ability to effectively abate the threat posed by rabbits will be improved.

Actions

Develop simple and cost effective methods of monitoring the impacts of rabbits on threatened species as a means of evaluating control activities.

Develop improved methods for estimating rabbit numbers to assist in determining broad scale control priorities and assist in strategic planning.

Investigate interactions between rabbits and other herbivores to identify the relative contribution of rabbits to total competition and land degradation, particularly in rangeland areas.

Implementation of these actions may be supported with funding made available through the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Understanding interactions with other feral pests

Both feral goats and rabbits have been identified as contributing to competition and land degradation which is threatening native species and ecological communities. In areas where both species are present control activities should be planned to facilitate the identification of the relative contribution of each species to the threatening process. In circumstances where resources for control activities are limited, such information will be important in determining the most effective control strategy to be employed.

Actions

Identify the relative contributions of rabbits and feral goats to land degradation affecting endangered and vulnerable native species and ecological communities so that control of both species can be integrated to maximise recovery of native species.

Determine the level of competition between rabbits and feral goats for plant material to better integrate rabbit control activities with feral goat control activities.

Funding support may be made available through the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust. Implementation of these actions will be integrated with any similar actions prescribed in the threat abatement plan for the feral goat.

Refining priority setting mechanisms

Identification of species and regions that will benefit most from coordinated rabbit control activities to enhance their recovery is vital. Recovery plans identify those species at risk and areas of habitat critical for their survival. Implementation of these plans must be accorded the highest priority in national action to abate the threat posed by rabbits. Available resources will seldom, if ever, be sufficient to fully implement all the control measures recommended in recovery plans. Increasingly, areas will 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 be developed to cover protecting and facilitating the expansion of existing populations of endangered species, and preparing areas for translocation.

Actions

Develop a methodology to prioritise areas for investment in rabbit control to more effectively take account of the degree of threat that rabbits pose to the survival of an endangered or vulnerable species or ecological community; the potential that species or ecological community has to recover; and the cost efficiency and likely effectiveness of rabbit control.

Develop decision support systems to assist land managers to identify locally appropriate control method(s) and the circumstances and times to apply them in controlling rabbits.

Map the distribution of susceptible species, high risk habitats and rabbits to produce a national overview of priority regions.

The Rabbit Threat Abatement Team, specified in the actions relating to Objective 8, will take responsibility for implementation of these actions. Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget to enable staff to work with State authorities to ensure the available data are collated and analysed.

Education

Objective 7: Communicate the results of the threat abatement plan actions to management agencies, landholders and the public.

Education and extension

The success of this threat abatement plan will depend on cooperation between all key interest groups, including landholders, community groups, local government, State and Territory conservation and pest management agencies and the Commonwealth Government and its agencies. Ensuring that land managers and community organisations are skilled and effective participants in rabbit control activities, and improve their knowledge of the impacts that rabbits have upon native species and communities, is an essential component of the plan.

The plan will also assist in documenting significant advances in knowledge, techniques and practice for abating the threat to endangered and vulnerable species and ecological communities posed by rabbits. A number of actions identified require an extension/education effort to ensure effective implementation.

Actions

Prepare and distribute extension material to promote understanding of the actions to be undertaken under this plan, the use of humane and cost effective rabbit control methods, a wider knowledge of species recovery plans and the importance of competition and land degradation caused by rabbits as a key threatening process.

The Rabbit Threat Abatement Team, specified in the actions relating to Objective 8, will guide the development and implementation of an education, extension and information transfer program. Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget for the initial development of a communications strategy. This strategy will include detailed budgets for future years of the five year life of this plan.

 

Administration

Objective 8: Effectively coordinate rabbit control activities

National coordination

Historically, the focus of rabbit management has been on addressing problems associated with primary production systems. The activities and priorities under this plan will need to ensure that field experience and research are applied to further improve management of the impacts of rabbits on endangered and vulnerable species. Success will only be achieved if all key interest groups are involved in its further development and cooperate in its implementation. The Threat Abatement Plan Advisory Group was of considerable assistance in the development of this plan and a similar body will be needed to direct its implementation.

Implementation of this plan will require:

As identified above, the development of material to assist in extension and information transfer would be materially assisted by input from an advisory group comprising persons with relevant technical and practical experience in rabbit control. Similarly, a group with both technical and practical experience to draw upon could assess the potential broader application of control methods or approaches developed through local control plans.

Actions

Promote the management of rabbits at a regional level through coordinated group action.

A Rabbit Threat Abatement Team with relevant technical and practical experience, convened by Environment Australia, will be established to advise the Minister on implementation of the plan.

An independent expert will be commissioned before the end of the five-year life of the plan to conduct a comprehensive review of the progress made in its implementation.

Environment Australia will provide funds from its operating budget to convene the Threat Abatement Team and provide it with secretariat support. Costs of a comprehensive review of progress with implementation of this plan will be met from the National Feral Animal Control Program of the Natural Heritage Trust.

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

Commonwealth of Australia