by Tim Bloomfield
2015 has become of the year of rabbit upset. There have been both established Landcare groups and new landholders forming into groups interested in learning about and doing rabbit management in 2015.
This interest, in how to rabbit control successfully, has come mostly from the traditional rabbit areas (landscapes of highly suitable soils with ongoing rabbit problems over the last 150+ years) such as Bacchus Marsh, Rowsley Valley and from places of increasing awareness of rabbit impact Macedon Ranges Shire Council: – Kyneton; Yarra/Silvan sites:-Yarra Valley Agribusiness Group (YVAG); Surf Coast; Phillip Island etc.
What we have learnt and what haven’t we?
The old rabbity site of Rowsley Valley has a part time facilitator now who is sustaining and building on, an ongoing multi property warren mapping and warren destruction program. In recent history, 2013-15, this program was supported by Port Phillip & Westernport CMA (PPWCMA), with some funding from State and Federal governments during 2013-15. There are significant contributions from private landholders who have been encouraged to participate by the local rabbit action facilitator. The facilitation of individual landholders has created groups of adjoining landholders. These landholders have then worked together to apply the recipe for effective long term rabbit management followed by the replanting of treated (ripped) warrens and rabbit impacted areas with native vegetation. The rabbit facilitator has brought new landholders into the Landcare group and stimulated significant activity amongst the older members.
The Rowsley Landcare group was formed to work on rabbits and serrated tussock infestations much more than 20 years ago. There have been phases of rapid membership growth driven by enthusiastic landholders and dedicated state governments officers, employing facilitators and technical experts in rabbit, weed and land management. There have been phases that have seen a slow decline in membership and on ground activity as landholder demographics changed, changes to government investment and paid facilitators where removed or forced to cover multiple groups with their effect much diluted.
The change in the landscape from the late 1990s to 2015 in Rowsley has nonetheless been remarkable. Much of that change is seen as less tussock, many more trees and less obvious scars of erosion rampaging through the gullies and paddocks.
The re-emergence of rabbits from the hold of biological controls, and decreases in changed government focus in rabbit management has brought rabbits sharply into view, again, in 2015. Yet there is a new enthusiasm and awareness driving landholder’s actions. This ‘new’ knowledge is that just a few rabbits can stop native plant regeneration, and sustain weedy pastures. And the techniques to rid the land of rabbit impact are known, can be applied, really do work and can contain rabbit numbers to very low levels for more than a decade, repaying investments 10 fold.
Some messages learnt here is:-Effective rabbit management is worth the investment. Community action comes from dedicated individuals working together.
Another very important lesson to learn in working with groups is that to revitalise a Landcare/ Rabbit Action Group one important ingredient is:-knowledge.
This is knowledge of; what is important in the landscape to keep; what threatens that; and how to deal with the threat to help protect what is valuable to you and your neighbors. The transfer of information from a trusted knowledgeable facilitator, along with stories from landholders who have succeeded and the bringing in of experts from outside the group provide a learning opportunity for each person in the group. The application of effective rabbit management techniques on your neighbour’s land that you see work, builds confidence and enables a person and a family to make the big decisions to commit the time, money and energy necessary to manage the threats and change the landscape.
Faced now with a year where precipitation rates have been beaten by evaporation rates every month, every green plant seems threatened of being browsed, consumed and killed by ravenous rabbits. Of the many ways governments are helping landholders and rural communities would a commitment to recognise the opportunity of El Nino and the new Calicivirus K5 be one of them?
There have been four great periods of heavy sustained rainfall, in Australia’s metrological measured history. (The 2010–11 La Niña event was one of the strongest on record, comparable in strength with the La Niña events of 1917–18, 1955–56 and 1975–76). The last La Niña Dec 2010, to March 2011 created an enormous strike of native plants across the landscape. So many of those landscape changing plants have been lost, the majority of those palatable to rabbits where decimated. So what would have helped the plants that struck and started to grow up during that wet summer?
Many of the mature trees (60+years) you see in the landscape today are from the 1955-6 La Niña and they had the benefit of the 1950 myxomatosis outbreaks, it killed 95-98% of rabbits. Such a marvelous coincidence, and incredible benefit to the landscape. Thanks to the hard working scientist, field staff and community that made myxomatosis possible.
To have that one great crash in rabbit numbers and impact on the environment that was given by myxomatosis and La Niña was a blessing. And then to get the opportunity of RCD Calicivirus with the lessons learnt from myxomatosis, that a real sustained rabbit reduction in rabbit impact happens if you do large scale rabbit warren removal (N.B. kept properly treated areas rabbit free for 17 years) is surely as good as it gets.
Well, then it must be a miracle to get third chance. This opportunity, is the combination of the new RCD K5 and El Nino in 2016. Is this the last chance, or the most important? What will you do with this chance and as a community what have we learnt about commitment and rabbits? Time, you and the next generation can judge this one.