Hard-hooved feral animals such as horses, deer and pigs will feast on the green shoots of native plants and seedlings, severely undermining the ability of the Australian bush to recover naturally. These large, heavy animals will take scarce feed from kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots and wombats.
Already in Kosciuszko National Park feral horses are freely roaming the fire grounds, feeding on vegetation that should provide food and shelter for native mammals, small lizards and other ground-dwelling wildlife.
Massive recovery efforts needed
The scale and intensity of the fires makes the re-population of burnt areas by native animals so much more difficult. Restoring damaged and lost habitat will be painfully slow. The presence of environmental weeds. feral cats and foxes and hard-hoofed feral herbivores like feral deer, horses and pigs in the burnt landscape will be a major obstacle to environmental recovery efforts.
Feral cats and foxes are widespread throughout most of the burnt areas across Australia and many will have found shelter from the fires. Cats and foxes between them are responsible for most of Australia’s mammal extinctions and continue to be the major threat to our surviving mammals. Cats will be hunting for animal prey across all the fire grounds while foxes will be on the prowl in all areas except Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and areas north of Townsville.
The larger feral animals like horses and deer have no natural predators and will quickly expand their range and move into new areas.
When Royal National Park burnt in 1994 a large resident population of feral rusa deer survived. Over the following years they spread quickly south through the Illawarra escarpment, into the suburbs of Wollongong and national parks to the west.
All states, but particularly NSW and Victoria, are still dealing with the fallout today as deer numbers continue to expand from these and other source populations, damaging crops and wildlife habitat.
Post-fire recovery must target feral animals
The months after a bushfire are among the best times to control feral animals, which congregate in the few remaining areas where feed is available. The open landscape makes it easy to locate feral animals and to use humane control methods such as aerial shooting to quickly reduce their numbers.
In Kosciuszko National Park a scandalous failure of management means feral horse numbers were already out of control before the horrific bushfires. A survey published just before the fires found that more than 20,000 uncontrolled horses infest the national park.
While hundreds of horses are likely to have been incinerated in the recent fires, those remaining will make more difficult the survival of struggling native wildlife whether they be wallabies and wombats or endangered corroboree frogs and stocky galaxids.
Bushfire recovery efforts must include immediate action to reduce feral horse numbers in Kosciuszko National Park, easing the pressure on native wildlife and ecosystems recovering from the massive landscape burns and limit the suffering of the horses themselves.
Threatened species recovery
Threatened species are already on the brink of extinction – the massive impacts of these bushfires followed by large-scale predation by foxes and feral cats could be the final straw that sends them into oblivion.
Immediate action must be taken to protect remnant populations of threatened species such as brush-tailed rock wallabies, mountain pygmy possums, long-footed potaroos and long-nosed bandicoots in bushfire-ravaged areas from foxes and feral cats.
Grazing animals like feral horses and deer will also impact on the recovery process for rare alpine vegetation and mountain wetlands through grazing of regrowth and trampling. This threat must also be addressed by quickly reducing feral animal numbers in sensitive areas.
Weeds will thrive
Environmental weeds are another serious threat that will hamper environmental recovery and restoration efforts. Weeds are highly successful because they thrive in disturbed landscapes, and many expand their range after fire.
Many weeds in these areas are likely to benefit because they tend to be good colonisers.
Invasive grasses such as serrated tussock, molasses grass, Coolatai and phalaris are of great concern, as they typically thrive on fire. Gorse, blackberry and lantana are just some of the other environmentally damaging weeds that will benefit from the fires.
Clearly, weeds and feral animals must also be the focus of any comprehensive post-fire environmental recovery plans.
A three-point plan
The Invasive Species Council is calling on federal and state governments to urgently roll out a three-point wildlife recovery program:
- Feral cat and fox control: Fast-track feral cat trapping and fox baiting at threatened mammal sites.
- Hard-hooved pest animal control: Accelerate trapping, ground and aerial shooting of feral deer, horses and pigs.
- Weed control: Target urban areas and disturbed sites susceptible to weed incursions.
Responding to the wildlife emergency
Australians and the world have been quick to respond to the bushfire wildlife emergency, with generous donations being sent to help rescue and care for injured animals.
But these efforts will be in vain unless a far-reaching pest and weed plan is put in place to give surviving native wildlife a chance to recover and thrive in an environment that is not dominated by predating cats and foxes and destructive feral herbivores like horses and deer.
If we fail, we will inherit a landscape full of feral animals and weeds and a hostile environment for Australia’s native plants and animals.
Donate and help wildlife recover
Our incredible wildlife carers will need all the help they can get over the coming months as they carry out the critical , ongoing work of keeping injured and hungry native animals alive after the bushfires.
You can join the wildlife recovery efforts in many ways: