IN late 2006 the Tasmanian Government launched an ambitious 10-year plan to eradicate foxes from the island state; an island of ~68,000 sq km. The Tasmanian Minister for Primary Industries and Water, Mr David Llewellyn, asked for a Commonwealth-State partnership involving a commitment of $28 million by each jurisdiction over this period.

Based on the conservative application of an import risk assessment matrix, the incursion threat of the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes) to Tasmania would be considered a high risk. Such an assessment takes into consideration the likelihood of entry, establishment and spread and the consequences of successful establishment.

Recent historical factors that operate in Tasmania have exacerbated the likelihood for the successful entry of this unwanted predator. The proximity of the Australian mainland where foxes are well established has increased the risk that foxes would develop breeding populations in Tasmania.

Two potential modes of the entry of foxes have been proposed: (1) the inadvertent entry of single foxes in freight shipping consignments passing through Melbourne and (2) the more serious claim of deliberate smuggling of live foxes for wild release.

The first mode of entry is known to have occurred and continues to be an ongoing incursion threat. The second mode of entry is based on hearsay and to date remains unproven.

Since 2001, the State Government has based its Fox-Free Tasmania campaign on the notion that up to 19 fox cubs were smuggled into Tasmania on several occasions, raised in secrecy and then released at four sites (Longford, Oatlands, Campania and St Helens). During 2001-02 the Department associated this highly publicised claim with a number of alleged sightings and some fox incidents involving the recovery of physical evidence in the Longford-Symmons Plains area — a decomposed fox in one instance and a smelly fox skin received in the post.

Since the official Fox-Free Tasmania program commenced in 2001, the Fox-Free Taskforce has received over 1000 sightings of foxes from across the state.

During the same time interval there have been a number of fox incidents which have generated near hysterical publicity, yet failing to illicit any genuine urgency in the form of on-ground response at the alleged fox hotspots. 

Since 2002 the State Government has utilized only one method of fox control/eradication — the deployment of buried dried-meat baits containing the poison, sodium monofluoroacetate [1080]. To date over 100,000 baits have been laid in regions the FFTF has targeted as fox hotspots and the Government states it has laid 1080-fox baits over 544,000 hectares. As a measure of success the FFTF claims that public reports of fox sightings in the baited regions have reduced subsequently. The FFTF acknowledges that no live foxes have been trapped; no foxes have been photographed using remote cameras and no fox carcasses found after these baiting programs.

After six years of fox investigations and taskforce activities the program still does not have unequivocal proof of fox breeding (i.e. establishment) in Tasmania. On the 17 April MLC for Windermere,  Ivan Dean called on the State Government to conduct a full independent investigation into the authenticity of the fox material recovered from the significant fox incidents in this state with a view to increasing public confidence.


Some Tasmanians claim that foxes have been free-ranging in the Tasmania for several decades. The question I asked myself was: if the likelihood of fox introduction has been high for the best part of 150 years, what natural or artificial factors would control their ability to establish and spread?

If the State Government were as willing to listen to me — as they appeared to be in 2002 — I would recommend that they use their $2.8 million of State fox funds to (1) get a proper risk assessment done for foxes under the current Tasmanian environmental conditions and (2) adopt an immediate on-ground surveillance and bio-intelligence response at, at least one of their designated fox hotspots — Conara-Cleveland-Epping Forest; Burnie-Wynyard; St Helens-Ansons Bay; Richmond-Campania.

For years the Taskforce has argued that they lack the resources to undertake these concerted ground-truthing exercises using all the effective tools for fox detection at their disposal. 

The Taskforce spokespersons acknowledge that there has been lack of follow-up evidence from several hot spot sites. In addition they have been uncritical in their field investigations and, more seriously, made public statements prematurely and in error. The selective release of information obtained from these investigations has also plagued this fox program. Little wonder independent observers are sceptical when certain results are made public and then later additional information comes to light that questions those results. On several occasions important conclusions have been made by FFTF officials that have later been shown to be erroneous and yet the record is never corrected. This, in effect, has perpetuated a number of false claims.

The Old Beach incident involved the recovery of some dried blood samples on wood which returned a test result of ‘fox DNA’. This incident received considerable publicity at the time (June 2006) and occurred within weeks of the release of the Invasive Animal CRC review of Tasmania’s fox program. What was not disclosed in the review of this incident was that fox urine had been used by the FFTF as an attractant at this site and that this could conceivably have led to the contamination of any forensic samples subsequently collected at the site. The Department was less than open about the other tests and activities they undertook at this site. The general public was not told — at the time — of the use of remote cameras and infra-red sensors at the Old Beach site.

On 25 April Mr Mooney wrote in The Mercury that fox urine was used at the Old Beach site — but it was only after the wood and sand samples that later tested positive for fox DNA — had been collected. He states that samples were collected on 22 May and that fox urine wasn’t used until mid June.

The forensic value of a species-specific DNA test is that it can be quite definitive but any sample contamination with DNA from the targeted species either at collection or during handling or testing can lead to a ‘false positive’ result. Trained forensic field operatives are aware of this and one way of increasing the reliability of field samples relying on DNA is to ensure that other evidence gathered at a site corroborates that test result —  i.e. via definitive fox footprints, scats, a photograph, fox hair, or fox saliva on the killed chickens.

According to the released information from the Department provided to parliamentarians — there was fox DNA found on two samples of wood recovered from the wood framing at an entry point to the chicken coop;  no fox hair, faeces, saliva, footprints or photographs were obtained to corroborate the DNA result.

The old Beach incident received 7 days of continuous newspaper coverage — courtesy of Rohan Wade of The Mercury — and it came at the time when the Expert Review Panel report on the Tasmanian fox program was due to be finalised. The belief that a fox likely caused the death of 20 chickens at this site rests on the DNA evidence from two wood samples. With the clear knowledge that fox urine was used at this site as an attractant — I asked a simple question: Could the Government or its DNA testing laboratory investigate and rule out the possibility that the samples obtained from this site were contaminated in any way with fox biological material of fox origin that was used as a lure or attractant? I have yet to receive a reply from either quarter.

It has now also been disclosed that dog DNA — presumably from saliva — was recovered from the killed chickens at this incident and that neighbours had also experienced chicken deaths attributed to marauding dogs. On the totality of the evidence available to the FFTF they should have considered the likelihood that the animal responsible for this suspicious multiple chicken killing could have been dogs and considered the possibility that the fox DNA result may have been the result of contamination with fox biological material used by the taskforce.  Naturally the lack of any supporting evidence of fox — in the form of an image, a foot print, a scat, or fox hair — should have registered with the investigators.

After this incident in July 2007 I took Minister Llewellyn at his word when he assured me personally that he would involve Tasmania Police forensics unit in any subsequent fox incidents. Yet just one month later at the Glen Esk Road incident this did not occur.

Had the Government allowed a professional forensic unit to be involved in all the fox incidents going back to 2001 perhaps many of these inconsistencies and mistakes might have been detected before these fox stories were publicised.

After the most recent fox incident in August 2006 [the recovery of a dead fox at Glen Esk Road], a FFTF spokesperson publicly claimed that this incident ‘proved’ that foxes had established in Tasmania and that there were between a few dozen and several hundred foxes free-ranging in Tasmania. The Department relied on information from what they claimed was a reliable but anonymous witness; a Department manager then claimed publicly that this person had killed the fox at very close to 9.30 am that morning. This was factually incorrect and the state of the dead fox proved it was not freshly dead and not warm when allegedly recovered from the road. In fact it was beginning to decompose, and in my opinion, was well past rigor mortis.  This incident was based on a somewhat plausible storyline that made for immediate sensational media. This incident is constructed from fabrication (the Department now accepts the possibility that the animal did not die on Glen Esk Rod and had been physically transferred there), falsification (an incorrect witness comment was relied upon by FFTF and then made public) and an uncritical assessment of the totality of the incident (the animal had been dead well in excess of the time claimed).

The Department now considers the information from another anonymous informant suggesting the fox was killed somewhere else and then put on the Glen Esk Road as more plausible. What we still do not know is: where the fox came from, where it was killed, how it was killed and who killed it?

If this fox was killed on a nearby property — as FFTF now believes — the unknown questions that remain unanswered are:  was it a free-ranging fox genuinely caught or killed in Tasmania or was it captured in some recently arrived consignment from the mainland or even intentionally brought into Tasmania as a hoax? 

If it was a free-ranging fox genuinely caught or killed in Tasmania, why couldn’t those with that knowledge just tell the truth?

And if it was a fox captured in some recently arrived consignment from the mainland, why couldn’t those with that knowledge just tell the truth?


 
Prima-facie evidence to support the proposition that foxes are now established in breeding populations in one or more locations across Tasmania has not been proven. It is noteworthy that the collection of corroborative evidence from these fox ‘hotspot’ locations has not been forthcoming.

The Conara area is a location that the FFTF believes is a likely hotspot site for fox establishment. Despite this there has been little field surveillance for foxes in the area — for example no camera placements; no traps baited with live sentinel chickens; no use of trained scent dogs and no comprehensive transect surveys using trained people to assess the site. 

A few months ago Minister Llewellyn had the idea of using community volunteers to assist in these follow up efforts. To date these types of activities have not eventuated.

If the Department genuinely believes there are foxes resident in certain locations, why don’t they apply these sorts of approaches to fox threat assessment?
 
To date the bulk of the FFT resources and logistics have been deployed at mitigating the perceived presence of foxes by 1080-poisoning and undertaking a public education and awareness campaign.

Some resources and staff have been allocated to pre-border and border quarantine and biosecurity measures that should improve Tasmania’s capability at preventing further fox entry.

Limited resources have been used to apply risk assessment and forensic investigation capability to their program. Yet in June 2006, the Expert Review Panel Report on the Tasmanian Fox Threat (1)highlighted the significant deficiencies present in the management of fox incidents and particularly the handling and expertise applied to the collection and assessment of physical evidence.

The publicity on the threat of fox establishment has been exploited to obtain recurrent funding for the last 6 years. Despite the saturation publicity given to this serious incursion risk, the FFTF’s own efforts have, to date, been unable to confirm the presence or the establishment of foxes at any hotspot location in Tasmania by a two-factor verification test. The ‘precautionary principle’ remains the basis of their 1080-poisoning and public education activities.

Despite the FFTF involvement in follow up investigations at incident sites — e.g. with the use of fox attractants at feeding stations or latrines; sand pads for footprints; infra-red sensor cameras; spotlighting and trapping activities; field surveillance for dens or other signs of fox establishment; and the use of fox-scent dogs — no evidence of an unambiguous nature has been obtained.

The historical scenario from 2001 to 2007 permits only two explanations — either the program and policy has been ineptly managed and under-resourced or more seriously, humans have been involved in fabrication of evidence with a view to deception. And from my assessment spanning the period, there may be a combination of both.

Recommendations

An open-ended ten-year investment from the Commonwealth in Tasmania’s war on foxes needs to be carefully evaluated in the light of this background.

A commitment to support the Tasmanian Government’s efforts to protect the state’s unique biodiversity through mitigating the impact of the red fox as serious threatening process, must be based on sound science and supported by thorough, independent and persuasive field assessments.

Even applying the precautionary principle to threat abatement requires a holistic approach.

Reinforced biosecurity measures to prevent fox entry into Tasmania combined with border inspections are essential.

Adopting a genuine early response and preparedness capability to incidents where a two-factor verification assessment confirms fox presence must be implemented. Such responses increase public confidence in the campaign.

Improving the investigational and detection capability offered to Tasmania’s FFTF should be supported. This may require the involvement of Tasmania Police forensic personnel and expertise from the Invasive Animals CRC.

The development of a greater skill and capability base within Tasmania to address all feral animal and unwanted invasive species [through a Feral Species Unit] that seriously affect the island’s unique biodiversity is definitely required.

(1)  Funded by the Commonwealth Government and co-ordinated by the Invasive Animals CRC.

David Obendorf

The historical scenario from 2001 to 2007 permits only two explanations — either the program and policy has been ineptly managed and under-resourced or more seriously, humans have been involved in fabrication of evidence with a view to deception. And from my assessment spanning the period, there may be a combination of both.