Bushfire and ferals a recipe for disaster

Media Release |
Bushfires ravage the landscape and leave it vulnerable to invasion by feral animals and weeds. Photo: Shutterstock

Efforts to save Australian wildlife from the impacts of catastrophic bushfires will fail unless the control of foxes, feral cats, horses and deer are a major part of wildlife disaster recovery plans, the Invasive Species Council warned today.

“Fire-denuded landscapes suit feral cats and foxes, which pick off injured and recovering small mammals seeking food and shelter in the fire zone,” Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox said.

“Native wildlife will be at much greater risk of attack because the fires are forcing them further afield to find food, and there is not enough vegetation to hide them from foxes and cats.

“Deer will be among the first animals to find and devour new green shoots, taking out new sources of wildlife food before our native animals can get to them and impeding vegetation regrowth.”

The Invasive Species Council is calling for any wildlife disaster recovery plans to include a comprehensive list of actions that will quickly reduce numbers of feral animals and weeds.

“The presence of environmental weeds and hard-hoofed animals like feral deer, horses and pigs in the burnt landscape will be a major obstacle to environmental recovery efforts,” Mr Cox said.

“Restoring damaged and lost habitat is critical but will be painfully slow and in many cases impossible if we don’t hit pest animals like feral horses and deer hard as part of recovery plans.”

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.

“Already in Kosciuszko National Park thousands of 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,” Mr Cox said.

“No humane feral animal measure should be off the table.”

The months after a bushfire are among the best times to control feral animals, which congregate in areas where scant 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.

Grazing animals like feral horses and deer will also impact the recovery process for rare alpine vegetation and mountain wetlands through grazing and trampling. This threat must be addressed by quickly reducing feral animal numbers in sensitive areas.

Environmental weeds are another serious threat that will hamper environmental recovery and restoration efforts.

Major weeds such as Coolatai grass and lantana are known to benefit from fires by spreading into burnt areas.

“Australians and the world have been quick to respond to the bushfire wildlife disaster, with generous donations being sent to help rescue and care for injured animals,” Mr Cox said.

“These efforts are of huge immediate relief but will be in vain unless a far-reaching pest and weed plan is put in place to maximise the chances of native wildlife surviving, recovering and thriving in an environment 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.”

For comment

  • Andrew Cox, Invasive Species Council CEO – 0438 588 040.

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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.
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