Feral cats: how we can solve this problem

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With the survival of so many Australian mammal species now under serious threat from feral cats, it's more important than ever that we bring them under control.
With the survival of so many Australian mammal species now under serious threat from feral cats, it’s more important than ever that we bring them under control.

Solving the problem of feral cats in the Australian environment will require long-term, well-resourced steps. But with the right will, it can be done.

Conservation managers learnt a long time ago that feral animal control is not simply a matter of blasting away at individual animals, and this is especially the case for cats.

With the much-needed emerging focus on feral cats, we can be certain there will be lots of strong opinions and a proliferation of unrealistic ‘silver bullet’ solutions.

But as Professor John Woinarski explains, managing feral cats is a “formidable challenge” needing action on many fronts.

Feral cats have long been recognised as a threat — the first national threat abatement plan was published in 1999 — but like many invasive species threats, efforts have been hampered by short-term, inadequate funding, limited focus on environmental priorities, failures to implement plans, lack of coordination between governments and a desire for simplistic solutions. For feral cats, we have also been stymied by a lack of effective control methods.

As with most complex problems, success in addressing feral cats will require a long-term, well-resourced endeavour with sustained leadership.

Be ambitious but realistic: With the survival of many Australian mammal species hanging in the balance, it is heartening to hear our national environment minister, Greg Hunt, embracing feral cat management as a high priority.

But any effort has to be founded on biological (and socio-economic) realism. Minister Hunt’s goal to eradicate “all of the significant populations of feral cats around Australia” through a 10-year plan is not realistic.

In the short-term it will be realistic to eradicate feral cats from some sanctuary islands and to better protect threatened species. Enduring solutions will require a much greater research effort, and much better management of interacting factors such as fire, dingoes and other invasive species (such as rabbits, rodents and foxes).

Implement a plan and involve the right people: We don’t have to start from scratch. The 2008 national threat abatement plan for predation by cats can be dusted off and updated to serve as a basis for national action. Implementation should be overseen by a capable team from within and outside government with a mandate for action by state and federal environment ministers.

Match rhetoric with resources: Funding will be the key test of the government’s resolve. Significant new, long-term resources are needed for research and control programs. This means reversing the downward funding trends of the last decade.

Prevent new or worse problems: We should act on the axiom that prevention is better than cure by making sure we don’t add to cat problems by allowing continual replenishment of feral cat populations, introducing new genes (through new breeds) or allowing colonisation of new places. This requires, for example, stronger biosecurity on cat-free islands and control of stray cat populations in places such as garbage tips.

Consider legal options: Pest declaration under state laws has been proposed as one solution. But on its own, this would have limited effect because few control options are available to landowners, and most effort to protected threatened species is required in remote areas. But it makes a lot of sense to have nationally consistent laws to enforce responsible pet ownership.

Address social issues: Effective national action on feral cats needs strong public support to maintain political support and funding. There will inevitably be vocal opposition to options that cause animal suffering or affect domestic cats, so there must be a commitment to achieving humane, socially acceptable options.

We have already lost too much of what is precious about Australia to feral cats (and other invasive species). It is realistic to believe that we can stop further irrevocable losses. And it is a goal worthy of a bold national commitment.

This post was first published at ABC Online on Fri 17 Oct 2014 as part of a series of articles accompanying an ABC Radio RN Background Briefing story: Feral cats rewrite the Australian story, broadcast Sun 12 Oct 2014. 

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Help protect NSW!

Our expert team has written a list of policy asks detailing exactly what the next NSW government needs to do to stamp out some of the worst invasive species impacts across the state. But they will only become a reality if every key political candidate at the 2023 NSW state election hears about it from you!

Dear National Deer Management Coordinator,

Please accept this as a submission to the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

[Your personalised message will appear here] 

I am very concerned about the spread of deer and am pleased that a national plan has finally been developed. Without urgent action, funding and commitment from all levels of government it is clear that feral deer will continue to spread and damage our environment.

The feral deer population in Australia is growing rapidly and spreading across the country, damaging our natural environment, causing havoc for farmers and foresters and threatening public safety. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our plants and wildlife haven’t evolved to deal with these heavy hard hooved animals with a voracious appetite.
With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, they could occupy almost all of Australia unless stopped. Despite this, state and territory governments have been slow to respond and in Victoria and Tasmania they are still protected by law for the enjoyment of hunters.

This plan should be adopted by all governments but must also be underpinned by dedicated funding and clear responsibilities. A plan without funding or accountability is a plan that will fail and Australia cannot afford for this to fail.

In order to prevent the spread of feral deer and reduce their impact on our native wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture, I ask that the following recommendations be adopted for the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

1. All federal, state and territory governments should adopt the National Feral Deer Action Plan and declare feral deer to be a priority pest animal species.

2. All federal, state and territory governments should commit to:

  • Contain deer to the existing large population areas.
  • Reduce and eradicate smaller and isolated populations.
  • Protect important environmental assets such as world and national heritage areas.
  • Develop and fund regional plans and strategies to manage deer populations which involve land managers across all tenures.

3. In order to drive action and the success of this plan, there should be dedicated Commonwealth funding and support for:

  • A permanent national feral deer coordinator position.
  • A permanent federal feral deer action committee with representatives from the commonwealth and state and territory governments and the environmental and agricultural sectors.
  • An ongoing public education campaign on feral deer.
  • A network of regional feral deer coordinators to drive local action across tenures.

4. The expected outcomes for the plan need to be more ambitious, with clear interim targets including:

  • Within one year, all States and Territories should have in place arrangements to implement the National Feral Deer Action Plan, including allocating dedicated funding for implementation.
  • Within one year, feral deer management plans should be developed for key environmental assets of national significance, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Greater Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps, the Gondwana Rainforests and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
  • Within five years coordinated landscape scale management should be in place where land owners, land managers, government and community are demonstrably working together.

5. A national feral deer containment map with three zones should be adopted. It should be more ambitious than the zone map in the current draft plan and there should be greater clarity in the naming of the zones. Improvements that should be adopted include:

  • Renaming the zones to better reflect the management intention to ‘Containment Zone 1’ (the current large population zone), ‘Containment Buffer Zone 2’ (the current buffer zone) and ‘Eradication and prevention Zone 3’ (the current small isolated population zone).
  • The NSW northern rivers area should be in the eradication and prevention zone as there are few feral deer currently in this region and eradicating isolated populations and preventing spread into this area is still possible.
  • The whole of South Australia should be in the eradication and prevention zone as eradication is the goal of the SA Government.
  • The Tasmanian region in the containment zone should be smaller to reflect greater ambition and potential for eradication of deer populations.
  • In eastern Victoria areas such as Wilson’s Promontory, Westernport islands and the Mornington Peninsula should be in the eradication and prevention zone.

6. There should be consistent laws and regulations across all states and territories that:

  • Recognise feral deer as a pest animal and treat them as such.
  • Establish a clear responsibility for all landholders and managers to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • Set clear penalties to stop the wilful or negligent release of feral deer.
  • Prevent new deer farms in areas where no feral deer are present and phase out all deer farms in the eradication and prevention zone.
  • Enable enforcement of compliance, including on government land.

I support the follow principles being adopted in the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

  • Feral deer are a pest and should be treated as such on all tenures, except on approved deer farms.
  • Federal, state and territory governments have a responsibility to fund the outcomes under this plan.
  • All land managers in areas where feral deer are present have a responsibility to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • The focus of management efforts should be on eradication of isolated, satellite populations, protection of key environmental assets currently impacted and stopping the spread to new regions.
  • Feral deer control should be undertaken humanely, safely and professionally according to agreed protocols and all tools which meet this criteria should be adopted, including aerial control.
  • Funding for coordination, regional planning and community engagement is necessary for effective feral deer management.
  • Ongoing management and follow up control efforts are required to achieve long lasting results.
  • Rules and regulations should be consistent across jurisdictions and land tenures.
  • Recreational hunting is not an effective strategy for feral deer control and should not be relied upon.
[Your name]
[Your email address]
[Your suburb], [Your state]