Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Political dreaming: shooters solving pest problems?

The Victorian government has introduced bounties for foxes and wild dogs, $10 for the scalp of a fox, and $50 for that of a dog. Bounties have been tried before, and failed to control these pests, but…

These foxes are worth $10 each when killed and scalped, is it really worthwhile in controlling fox numbers, and is $10 worth the effort? David Peacock

The Victorian government has introduced bounties for foxes and wild dogs, $10 for the scalp of a fox, and $50 for that of a dog. Bounties have been tried before, and failed to control these pests, but little has been learnt. In announcing the bounties, benefits to farmers or wildlife figured little; why the program was needed was unclear.

Major tensions were obvious between the politicians and the Victorian government departments which had well-established fox control programs. Publicity about the bounties carried the following advice:

The most effective means of achieving a sustained reduction in fox and wild dog numbers is through simultaneous and coordinated community baiting programs, implemented at a landscape scale and supported by other control techniques. Existing fox and wild dog control programs being conducted on public land will continue during the bounty period.

After the bounty system began, 10,000 fox scalps were returned in the first 11 weeks, meaning that $100,000 or 10% of the annual budget had been spent. One hunter reportedly shot 50 foxes in two days. The monetary return, he reported, “did not recover costs, but it helped.” Scalp collection figures were potentially distorted with a news report proclaiming that “The race is on to scalp and claim Victoria’s $10 bounty on hundreds of fox carcasses hanging from fences”.

Frank Bernhardt

The Member for Polwarth, Terry Mulder, said there was a noticeable increase in spotlighting activity across the south west since the introduction of the fox bounty: “Most farmers agree that the bounty is effective at reducing fox numbers” he said. “There are lots of foxes around but some shooters have reported a reduction compared with the same time last year, which is being attributed to the bounty.”

Mulder’s evasive spin was not surprising. Mainland Victoria is 227,000 square kilometres, and fox-density varies seasonally between 1.2 – 3.0 foxes per km2. Applying the latter value over the summer when young foxes are dispersing, the bounties collected represented 1.5% of Victoria’s fox population. How could a mere 1 – 2% change in fox numbers be measured from shooters’ reports alone?

If the annual bonus payment limit of $1 million is reached, which now seems seems likely, only 15–20% of Victorian foxes will have been killed. Furthermore, with four cubs produced by the average vixen next spring, there will be no lasting benefit for lambing percentages or conservation. From the start, the scheme has knowingly been a quack remedy; a palliative rather than a cure.

With Victoria’s politicians so blatantly diverting funds better spent on conservation or agricultural protection into shooter’s pockets to gain favour, we must seriously question their ability and motives in general when they speak of opening up National Parks to recreational shooting for pest control.

In some areas, shooting can contribute to conservation. For example, South Australian Sporting Shooters have contributed time and skills to fox control in the Flinders Ranges National Park but that has been done as part of a wider program, mopping up those few foxes and feral cats left after baiting campaigns. Even then, spotlighting for long hours on cold nights soon wears thin and the shooters need to re-kindle their enthusiasm by occasionally visiting other locations where there are more foxes to shoot.

It is also important to note that when brush-tailed bettongs were re-introduced into that park, they eventually succumbed to cats and foxes despite intensive predator control efforts. Clearly, an extremely high level of control must be maintained if re-introductions are to succeed. But having a few hunters wandering about in National Parks randomly shooting the odd feral animal does not constitute effective control. We need to know the level of predator reduction required and make sure combined control efforts meet those goals. This cannot be decided by politicians who demonstrably lack any understanding of what pest control means.

I have recently visited several nature reserves where programs are in place to control feral goats, but Gluepot Reserve, BirdLife Australia’s sanctuary in South Australia’s Riverland, stands out for its achievements. The key to success on the former sheep station has been the filling-in of dams using a bull-dozer; the few dams left to supply water for fire-fighting and domestic use have been fenced off, leaving the goats little option but to move elsewhere. Shooting is important too, but again, this is carefully used with radio-collared “Judas goats” to locate the few remnant goats. Gluepot’s lack of goats compared with surrounding areas proves that there are much better alternatives than relying on shooting alone.

Together with other methods, well-organised shooting can play a useful role in pest control and conservation programs. But as for recreational shooting to remedy persistent feral animal problems - forget it! Even when subsidised with bounties shooting by itself cannot work. So why promote and fund it when there are much better, well-proven ways of doing things?

Comments welcome below.

Join the conversation

38 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor at Wound CRC

    Politics will always prevail over common sense, $1M is small price to capture the votes of the shooters groups, the public would intuitively support the program and the money would not go very far in a conservation program. That it is relatively ineffectual is of little consequence!

    report
    1. Peter Bruce

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Stephen Prowse

      Unfortunatley you are correct Stephen, just vote buying and a bargain price. To have any real effect the number would need to be at least $10m.

      The goat solution refered to is realtively easy. Goats herd but foxes and cats do not. Baiting foxes and feral cats works but it is a very ugly solution, one that is hardly humane and often kills non-target species.

      Shooting helps to control these ferals. The emphasis is on "control". Eradication will be very expensive and probably impossible.

      report
    2. David Healy

      Retired

      In reply to Peter Bruce

      Agree with your comments about shooting feral animals, Peter. It may lessen the impact, but it will never get rid of the problem. However, it may be necessary in certain specific cases, even in national parks.

      There was a segment on "Landline" several months ago about a park in Victoria (unsure if it's state or national) that culls ferals using local shooters' organisations. The shooters didn't expect to make money; they saw it as a public service.

      report
  2. Christopher Johnson

    Professor of Wildlife Conservation and ARC Australian Professorial Fellow at University of Tasmania

    The ineffectiveness of bounties is well understood. Brian's article makes that plain, but anyone who is still in doubt should have a look at the position statement on this issues released by the Australasian Wildlife Management Association (the professional body representing wildlife scientists and managers throughout Australia and New Zealand):

    www.awms.org.au/files/bounties_awms_position.pdf

    Ill-planned pest control operations not only waste money, they can make pest problems worse by disrupting social organization in pest populations, leading to more movement of pest animals and even higher population densities and increased impact.

    It is frustrating the governments find it so difficult to learn from past failures.

    report
    1. Peter Bruce

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Christopher Johnson

      Thanks for the info Christopher. Ownership of the problems is the only way to start addressing the issue.

      I have been reasonably sucessful in controlling fox numbers on one property, 2500 acres, near Sydney by shooting. The key is to get the breeders first then follow up in summer when pups from adjoining properties move back in.

      Definately not a solution, but the control is relatively effective against the fox population.

      If you can point me to a better strategy I will gladly take it onboard.

      report
    2. Clive A Marks

      logged in via email @attglobal.net

      In reply to Christopher Johnson

      They might also like to look at a report authored by scientists employed in the Victorian government and published by the very same government in 2003 that reviewed its last bounty "trial" (http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/3721346).

      Strangely, the report was once widely available online from the Victorian Government's own site but now seems to have disappeared. It made the same points and came to the same conclusions as Brian's excellent article.

      Unfortunately, AWMS position statements…

      Read more
    3. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Clive A Marks

      >unless scientists (especially those within Victorian government) grow a pair and demand that their own science and publications are "allowed" to see the light of day.

      You've obviously paid off your mortgage and are able to retire independently. Not quite so easy for everyone.

      report
    4. Clive A Marks

      logged in via email @attglobal.net

      In reply to Wil B

      What an odd comment. So only retired (which I am not!) ex-employees of the Victorian State Government (which I was almost a decade ago) are able to demand that the publicly funded science and prior analysis done by your government on bounties is made available to the, er, public?

      Are you saying that the politicians/policy makers have stopped you being scientists and curtailed your ability to publish, comment or disseminate the scientific arguments - as mentioned in this article? Do they prevent you from disseminating other Vic Government documents that show that bounties cannot be supported by science by threatening your mortgage? Really?

      That's hard to believe. But If you do have such a massive science culture problem in your organisation, some better cultivate some testicular fortitude and defend science and by this way the public interest. Presumably that's why the taxpayer pays for their mortgage. No?

      report
  3. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    a bounty was very effective in Tasmania to eradicate the Thylacine! I agree that bounties generally do not achieve a significant on-ground reduction of target species but, as part of a broader campaign, they help to raise public awareness and should be encouraged, provided the broader campaign is also put into effect.

    report
    1. Mark Graham

      Ecologist

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Yes a bounty was effective in causing the extinction of the Thylacine. But the Thylacine had a small population and low fecundity.

      I disagree that bounties should be encouraged because all evidence indicates that they are ineffective. These funds are better spent on other control measures.

      report
  4. Tim Adams

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Great article, thanks Brian.

    I am interested in the issue of (non-owned) cats in urban areas. Like foxes, non-owned cats are highly adept at making a living in our cities - and possibly better equipped than foxes, as humans will, in many cases, actively feed non-owned cats on compassionate grounds. A study for the Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare found that over 20% of Victorians feed a cat they don't own.

    There is a parallel campaign to the one you describe being run with active government…

    Read more
  5. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Brian, you misunderstand the way politicians judge the efficiency of these programs. Its about dollars per vote, not dollars per fox.

    report
  6. Leigh Nunn

    logged in via Facebook

    Every fox taken by the bounty, is one that was not taken by any other method. Its a little misleading to say that the bounty is not effective in controlling fox numbers. Whilst such a statement would be true - were the bounty the ONLY method of fox control- as part of an integrated approach, it can only compliment other methods of population reduction. With the author's admission that over 100,000 foxes will be claimed this year, that says to me its 100,000 foxes that would've been breeding this…

    Read more
    1. Christopher Johnson

      Professor of Wildlife Conservation and ARC Australian Professorial Fellow at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Leigh Nunn

      "over 100,000 foxes will be claimed this year, that says to me its 100,000 foxes that would've been breeding this season"

      The problem is that if population density is reduced, the breeding success and survival of the remaining animals increases because each of them has more food and space available. This response means that the population quickly bounces back to its previous size.

      To get a sustained reduction in abundance, you need a control method that can not only cause a large initial reduction, but can be repeatedly applied to hold the population at that reduced size. Bounties don't provide that, because bounty hunting is not cost-effective when population density is low. If bounty-hunters do succeed in knocking a population down, there is a strong incentive for them to relax hunting pressure on that population, with the result that it quickly recovers. Nothing has been gained.

      report
    2. Tim Adams

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Christopher Johnson

      Chris your logic is good, and it makes sense.

      The challenge arises, however, when the issue is clouded by other drivers aside from the assumed objective -which ought to be to reduce feral population.

      There is a strong imperative it seems to "do something"... even though the evidence says that to do nothing has the same long term effect as doing something only for a short while.

      Feral animals are true survivors - they are hardy, fecund, and adaptable.

      We'd have no problem hypothetically eradicating Thylacines all over again using bounties... but the same is not true for foxes (and cats / goats / rabbits / pigs / Indian mynas / etc etc).

      So a land owner who is willing to address local fox populations on their farm by shooting will certainly make some difference - but only if they are willing to maintain a shooting program ad infinitum, and only if they accept that there will never be zero foxes. (Unless they live on a small island).

      report
    3. Joshua Portelli

      I

      In reply to Christopher Johnson

      "The problem is that if population density is reduced, the breeding success and survival of the remaining animals increases because each of them has more food and space available. This response means that the population quickly bounces back to its previous size."

      All existing control methods suffer from this. As to whether populations can return to previous numbers, it's not out without other factors and inputs to determine the rate of increase or any feasibility in assuming it actually will…

      Read more
    4. Leigh Nunn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Christopher Johnson

      I see a lot of singular in your response, Christopher, for example: "To get a sustained reduction in abundance, you need a control method... ". As I said, you dont need a control method, you need control methods - plural. you need an integrated, multi-faceted approach to control. I don't think there'd be much argument that a bounty provides the rapid initial loss in numbers talked about here. Follow that up with other control methods - be it baiting, or biological methods, and you are surely going…

      Read more
    5. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Leigh Nunn

      You've got it the wrong way around Leigh, the mass eradication plan, be it poisoning or whatever, is the primary means of killing. Shooting is to mop up the animals still left.

      In any event, the author's point is that there is limited funds to pay for a bounty and the amount of killing will be limited by the money. There is no secondary programme or even an ongoing programme. Therefore this limited shooting programme is worthless because it can never have a sustained impact upon the population.

      The fox population will self regulate to an extent through the amount reproduction in response to food availability. At least some of the fox cubs that will be born in the next 6 months would not have been born, or not have survived to adulthood but for the killing that is taking place in response to the bounty.

      There is no net environmental gain for this spending. There are other effective things that might have been done with this money that would have benefited the environment.

      report
    6. Leigh Nunn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Maddy Jones

      My God Maddy are you on here talking about running 2 programs simultaneously? Sounds almost heathenous!

      Self regulate in response to food availability? Unless the farmer closes up shop, food is always available, and since he or she breeds their stock, they're always going to be coming along nicely. Its only when someone's proactive about it by killing the foxes, that lambs survive. Not sitting on their hands saying 'oh well if we kill one, another will survive, so best just do nothing'. To that…

      Read more
  7. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    The reported reductions in fox numbers - do not under estimate the ability of the fox to adapt to shooters and spotlights. We once had one animal which would look once -10 15 sec, at the light and then not look again, so you lost it at long range. We got it after spotting it at ~800 m on a fallow paddock, and then following its shadow and the dust cloud it raised, as it ran from us. Helps to use 2 good spotlights. Lamb deaths dropped after that night for the rest of the season.

    Note also the problem of shooters also spreading the animals. DNA analysis of wild pigs in WA showed very close relationships between 2 pig populations widely separated with no continuous apparent corridor to move over - Collie 1.5 - 2 hours South of Perth and Northampton, >5 hours North of Perth.

    report
    1. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to John Holmes

      So far there has been a lot of negativity but nothing positive. The consensus seems to be that eradication is unattainable - more's the pity - so control is all that is left. How about someone comes up with a genuine system for reaching adequate control ? I have no answer, and I doubt that any of you have either. It seems that slaughter must be achieved in any manner possible, humane or otherwise, because the lambs and sheep killed by foxes and wild dogs do not die pleasantly. That we DO know. I am all for bounties when the populations of feral animals reach plague proportions - but how do we achieve control of what is left ?

      report
    2. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to Michael Hay

      That was in part the discussion a few weeks ago re dingo's and wild dogs and the problems of using various baits etc.

      Re foxes etc, bit a of a problem here if we develop some novel biological control systems eg hot up some naturally occurring viruses which only target foxes, or cats etc. Just how do we keep the organisms from escaping to Euro-Asia and destroying the native species there. For cats, there would need to be some sort of easily available vaccine system for pets. This would certainly…

      Read more
    3. Blair Donaldson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Hay

      Michael, I'd like to know if they have been any programs that involve baiting with some type of contraceptive/sterilising agent? That's about the only way I can foresee a long-term removal of any pest species. Of course the problem is making such a program species specific but I don't know if such a thing is possible.

      report
    4. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      There was a proposal to inoculate foxes against rabies in Europe using vaccines in baits made from hen eggs. Not sure of the out come.

      RE chemical sterilization, can we get an effective result from a single dose that is species specific? Diseases better, but problems of controlling the out come should we.

      There was a proposal at CSIRO some time ago that looked at using viruses to sterilize feral animals, including cats. I think it got dropped as "can we keep such organisms in Australia…

      Read more
    5. Blair Donaldson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      John, given the large number of foxes and wild dogs and the relative inaccessibility of much of southern and eastern Gippsland I doubt shooters will seriously reduce the populations of these pests. At best they will minimise damage in farming areas.

      It surprises me groups like PETA and those who claim to be concerned about animal welfare are not demanding funding to develop more humane solutions to pest eradication. I suspect PETA is more interested in self-promotion than any meaningful animal welfare. Their silence on bullfighting exposes the hypocrisy, but I digress.

      I wouldn't mind betting the recent battle against rabbits has made legislators leery about the use of viruses. Hopefully somebody might discover a compound that can act as a long-term contraceptive or sterilising agent with selected species… But I won't be holding my breath.

      I cannot help but wonder how many of our native creatures have gone the way of the dodo courtesy of cats, foxes and wild dogs.

      report
    6. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Holmes

      I'd be quite happy if the government released a cat killing virus, for which there was no vaccine. Domestic cats are just as destructive as their feral cousins, and too few owners recognise this, and take measures to limit their destructive habits!

      report
    7. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Tim Adams

      So...one thing that is obviously bad for the environment is worse than the other bad thing...does that make it better??

      report
  8. Blair Donaldson

    logged in via Twitter

    All the arguments above are valid to varying degrees but the problem remains that baiting programs are often stymied by well-meaning but naive environmentalists (primarily) who have a curious notion about animal welfare. They voice concerns about native animals but are consistently silent about sheep being mauled, cows having their teats chewed off or their calf having its face eaten off during birth. It's horrific but the concern is curiously one-sided.

    I wonder how many here have grown up on…

    Read more
  9. Richard Nowotny
    Richard Nowotny is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired GP

    The author writes: "With Victoria’s politicians so blatantly diverting funds better spent on conservation or agricultural protection into shooter’s pockets to gain favour, we must seriously question their ability and motives in general when they speak of opening up National Parks to recreational shooting for pest control." and "Even when subsidised with bounties shooting by itself cannot work. So why promote and fund it when there are much better, well-proven ways of doing things?"
    I'm a little surprised not to have seen any reference to "scientific whaling" (as somewhat analagous) in the commentary.

    report
  10. John Malcolm

    logged in via Facebook

    With sheep prices so low, some farmers might be tempted to raise dogs instead.

    report
  11. Gavin Cerini

    Semi-retired wildlife manager

    To sum up:
    The Vic Coalition fox bounty is to catch votes, not foxes. $4m wasted.
    Fewer foxes = spare food = bigger litters. (We shot a vixen in a rabbit hot spot carrying 10 foetuses one August; 11 or 12 have been known).
    The traditional fox season in Vic ends early August, to replenish the population. "Control" is not an aim of most hunters.
    The bounty goes mostly to country town spotlighters and day hunters with dogs in cages on 4x4`s. Large bush areas are not their choice.
    The bounty is not aimed at farmers, who mostly vote Coalition regardless.
    On Sat 14/7/12 we got 19 foxes on Skipton - Streatham - Tatyoon farms, better than the season`s daily average. Numbers usually drop by now.
    The $4m must go into bio control research, and high kill campaigns.

    report
    1. Joshua Portelli

      I

      In reply to Gavin Cerini

      "The Vic Coalition fox bounty is to catch votes, not foxes."

      Well of course. It's to kill foxes. What's the point in catching them?

      ""Control" is not an aim of most hunters."

      It's really inspiring to see the desire for a common interest on this. Though perhaps, if non-academics and certain wildlife and scientific professionals were to share the same level of cynicism, it could be said that the involvement of "recreational" shooters, the "country town spotlighters and day hunters" with their…

      Read more
  12. Clinton Collins

    logged in via Facebook

    We all know that the fox is in-trenched into our many landscapes, and unfortunately will be there a long time. I do agree that we have a unified obligation to decrease numbers, via shooting and so fourth.
    Moreover, I would be interested to know who will be responsible, and what fresh data will come from this cull ??
    Is there going to be sampling done in areas where small mammals make the foxes diet ??
    Some things in life seem to meet a philosophical tune, I think the sound of a bounty is one of them !!

    report