THE BALANCE OF NATURE – UPSET IN AUSTRALIA.
To move forward, we must look back.
In July of 1921, a letter was published in the Morning Bulletin (a Queensland newspaper) lamenting the mismanagement of Australia’s landscapes.
While the target specificity of poison baits used today are a vast improvement on the strychnine, arsenic, cyanide, and phosphorous baits that were once scattered across the landscape, the letter from almost a century ago reminds us that the persecution of our top order predators has resulted in disastrous consequences for which sometimes it seems there is no way out.
The letter written by Mr W.E. Abbott almost a century ago provides a wonderfully insightful account of the trophic cascade of unintended consequences that can occur when our carnivores are removed from the environment. Whilst the baits of the 1870s were targeting dingoes, they killed our quolls and goannas as well. The loss of the dingo allowed kangaroo numbers to skyrocket and the collateral damaged of poisoned wildlife carcasses of animals were left to rot in the landscape. This increased the incidence of fly-strike on the sheep that the pastoralists were trying to protect from the dingoes, leading to significant stock losses. And with no dingoes or quolls in the ecosystem (the quolls had also been killed by the poison), rabbits began to plague.
Acknowledging the role that dingoes, quolls and Tasmanian devils play in regulating ecosystems, and then implementing strategies to maintain or increase their populations, would go a long way to re-balancing our very ‘out-of-kilter’ ecosystems. Land managers must focus on species interactions when developing invasive species management plans. Returning our carnivore marsupials to suitable habitat across their former ranges and developing more target specific methods of removing foxes, cats and rabbits from our landscapes that do not impact on healthy populations of predators like dingoes, devils and quolls would be a significant step in the right direction.
I hope you enjoy Mr Abbott’s insightful letter from the past…
During the war we had a great part of our record wheat crop of 1917 destroyed by a plague of mice. No doubt there are many small carnivorous animals in other parts of the world, which, if introduced and bred up in Australia, would soon deal with these Rodent plagues, but the thing cannot be done because of our Australian political conditions.
Our Government absolutely forbids by law the introduction of any small carnivorous animals, or any cultivated natural diseases, for the purpose of dealing with the rodent or other pests. The reasons given for this legislation and that the introduced animals might themselves become pests, and the diseases become a danger to the public health. The real reason is that the Rabbit Catchers’ Union, supported by the other labour unions, and by the large vested interests of the rabbit exporting companies, and poison importers, have a stranger political pull than the pastoralists and farmers.
“We also have a compulsory poison law, which compels every landowner in the Commonwealth to continually poison his land, from year’s end to year’s end”
We also have a compulsory poison law, which compels every landowner in the Commonwealth to continually poison his land, from year’s end to year’s end, with strychnine, arsenic, cyanide, and phosphorous baits. This law, by keeping the country always covered more or less with the carcasses of poisoned rabbits, has almost, if not quite, exterminated all our small indigenous carnivores, which were very numerous when sheep-farming first began in Australia.
“We had practically no pests for about ninety years after colonisation began here”
We had practically no pests for about ninety years after colonisation began here. This wholesale system of poisoning had another quite unexpected result. Insect-eating birds have been largely poisoned off by taking the baits laid fur rabbits, and the blowflies, by reason of the enormous number of dead carcasses left about, have increased to such an extent that, for the greater part of the year sheep must be mustered and dressed for blowfly maggots about once a week notwithstanding which, the losses are very heavy. Of course, under such conditions if a million South African meercats were introduced and turned loose amongst the rabbits, there would not be one meercat left alive in a month.
The most serious thing about the blowfly pest is that the high-class Merino, which produce ten or twelve pounds of very valuable wool, are most subject to attack by the blowflies, the poorest wool-producing sheep being the least liable, but all are more or less liable to attack.
“For the first ninety years after Australian settlement began sheep were shepherded and yarded every night, or ‘ kraaled,’ as in South Africa, in dog-proof yards”
For the first ninety years after Australian settlement began sheep were shepherded and yarded every night, or ‘ kraaled,’ as in South Africa, in dog-proof yards, for protection against the dingo or indigenous wild dog, which is the largest carnivorous animal in Australia. During the whole of that time innumerable efforts were made to introduce and acclimatise rabbits and hares for sport – without any success anywhere.
“As soon as they [rabbits] were lot loose none was ever seen again, being at once destroyed by the small marsupial carnivorous tiger cats and native cat [quolls] – which were very numerous all over the continent”
As soon as they were lot loose none was ever seen again, being at once destroyed by the small marsupial carnivorous tiger cats and native cat Dasyurus) – which were very numerous all over the continent, and in their ferocious lust for killing, apart from what they wanted for food, were unequaled by any animal found in any other part of the world. About 1870, when the sheep had increased to many million, and Australia had become the leading wool producing country of the world, the pastoralists began to substitute running their sheep in open paddocks for the earlier system of shepherding and ‘kraaling’ at night.
“Then a crusade of poisoning began to get rid of the dingoes”
Then a crusade of poisoning began to get rid of the dingoes. The country was ‘salved’ year after year with poisoned baits over all the land used for sheep-raising. The dingoes were got rid of on the sheep runs but of course but on the much larger unoccupied areas of the Australian continent. The [benefit?] of the new system was that one boundary rider could look after about 10,000 sheep, instead of requiring one man for every 1000.
“Within a few years the grass-eating marsupials increased to such vast numbers…”
The sheep and wool returns, of course, increased by leaps and bounds, but there was a drawback. Within a few years the grass-eating marsupials increased to such vast numbers that, in spite of bonuses, it looked as if the whole country would be eaten out. The destruction of the dingoes had made a free breeding ground for the grass eaters. That pest was got rid of in a short time by the Americans discovering the value of marsupial skins. Their buyers came here and bought up the skins at from 10s. to 12s. a piece, and the pest was ‘ shot out ‘ at a profit, and all seemed well. But, in clearing off the dingoes, the sheep men had also cleared off all the dasyuri [quolls], iguanas [goannas], and other small carnivores in the sheep country. Then hares end rabbits were introduced for sporting purposes, and a free breeding ground having been provided for them (contrary to the experience of the previous 100 years) they increased by millions, and overran the whole continent.
“Then all the states began to pass drastic compulsory poison laws, for the purpose of exterminating the rabbits.”
Then all the states began to pass drastic compulsory poison laws, for the purpose of exterminating the rabbits. That was about thirty years back.
“But as the first effect of the poison laws was to destroy all the small carnivores in every area where they were applied”
But as the first effect of the poison laws was to destroy all the small carnivores in every area where they were applied, everything that would eat a rabbit, young or old, was poisoned and a free breeding ground was provided for the rabbits. That policy only added fuel to the flame, and soon developed the blow- fly pest, which now seems likely to become worse than the rabbit pest. The result in New South Wales (which is my own state is lamentable. In New South Wales in 1892, with only two-thirds of the area watered and stocked, there were just on [170,000,000?] sheep. Now, with almost the whole area watered and occupied, and tens of millions of money spent in the last thirty years on artesian bores and other improvements, there are less than 30,000,000, and the decline is still steady. Under these circumstances it seemed to me there was nothing to be done but to ‘stand from under.’ and I am not now writing as a pastoralist, though for more than sixty years all my interests were in that industry.
“…they may be taught what they should not do…”
My reason for writing fully in reference to Mr, Rous’ letter is the hope that, by giving South Africans a summary of our Australian experience, much of which is within my own personal knowledge, they may be taught what they should not do, and in this way I may render them a service. I have known a good many South Africans and liked all I met. [End of letter].