Outfoxing a cunning killer

Australian scientists are within sight of eradicating the red fox from Phillip Island, south-east of Melbourne, where it has been causing havoc with native animals, particularly the island’s fairy penguin – the local name for the little penguin.

Thanks to improvements in control methods there are thought to be less than a dozen foxes there down from more than 200 in 1996.

“In the latter half of the 20th century, nine out of the 10 little penguin colonies on Phillip Island had been wiped out, most likely due to fox predation,” Dr Peter Dann research manager at the island’s Nature Parks says.

“One fox can kill more than 30 penguins a night.”

Researchers this week released a case study of the fight to outfox the foxes in the online version of the CSIRO journal Wildlife Research that they hope will help in other parts of the country.

Foxes were deliberately introduced into Australia in 1855 for recreational hunting but they soon had a devastating effect on native wildlife. The red fox arrived on Phillip Island in 1907 and, despite everything from bounties to hunting, trapping and baiting over the last 60 years, until recently they proved nearly impossible to reduce or remove.

The change came in the early 2000s when researchers began to objectively evaluate control methods which led to a more scientific approach and the aim of eradication.

“A team dedicated to control programmes is absolutely essential,” says Dann.

There is an imperative to measure the effectiveness of each method independently of personal biases: and monitoring both predator and prey populations concurrently is vital so the benefits of control can be demonstrated or management can be adapted.

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