The debate over foxes in Tasmania has a long and colourful history.
AIRLIE WARD, PRESENTER: Are they here or aren’t they?
Are foxes about to devastate the State’s wildlife and is the mere fear of them being introduced enough to see governments pour money into eradication?
Or are politicians and public servants just trying to give ailing departmental budgets a fox led cash injection?
Conspiracy theories abound on both sides of Tasmania’s great fox debate.
It’s a debate that’s actually being going on for a long time.
Fiona Breen has looked into the history of the elusive red fox.
FIONA BREEN, REPORTER: It could be the English countryside.
The hounds baying, the sound of the traditional hunting horn and the riders perfectly turned out in their red livery.
In the 1980s, a hunt was still a favourite past time for many country families in the northern and southern midlands.
A tradition going back 150 years in Tasmania, the quarry, an aniseed scent rather than a fox.
A collection of photographs housed at the archives office of Tasmania show one of the original hunt clubs meeting outside the popular Melton Mowbray Hotel.
Today southern midlands mayor, Tony Bisdee, is a descendent of one of those expatriate English hunting families.
TONY BISDEE, SOUTHERN MIDLANDS MAYOR: My great grandfather was master of the hunt for some considerable time and as were many members of the family were members of the hunt club.
FIONA BREEN: Stories about the hunts have been handed down through generations of Bisdees and he still calls family conversations about the popular pastime.
TONY BISDEE: From the relatives there would be probably up to 70 or 80 or even more, depending on the weather and that would gather of a Saturday or Sunday or even both and would start out on a hunt.
And they would probably go on the hunt for most of the day, and probably return about 4pm and where they would probably have what we call today a barbecue.
FIONA BREEN: An original sandstone horse trough and the hotel are reminders of a time when country Tasmania looked almost as English as the home country.
DAVID OBENDORF, WILDLIFE PATHOLOGIST: Hunting clubs go back to a history in Tasmania that probably began in the 1820s.
With colonial expansion of the valleys, north of Hobart, and south of Launceston, wealthy land owners, which were well connected to colonial government got into the things that they used to do very well in England.
FIONA BREEN: The baying of the hounds could often be heard in the countryside near Hobart and Launceston.
As men and women chased the quarry, sometimes a deer, a kangaroo or a possum and according to accounts in colonial newspapers, sometimes a fox.
TONY BISDEE: I’ve never heard any of the past generations speak about foxes and if there were foxes there then, they’d still be here today and they’re not.
Certainly not in this district that I’m aware of and if I think there had been a siting we would have all heard about it.
But I don’t ever believe that they brought out foxes in those days for the purpose of hunting.
FIONA BREEN: Wildlife veterinarian and pathologist David Obendorf is well known for questioning the evidence held up by the eradication team as proof of a fox population in Tasmania.
He’s gone through the archives.
DAVID OBENDORF: These foxes were attempted to be brought in using friendly captains that were transiting regularly between London and Tasmania.
FIONA BREEN: In one piece, the Hobart courier on the 18th of July 1846 reports:
“On Thursday the Cornwall hounds met near the township of Oatlands to run a bagged, Port Phillipian fox, which after a sharp run, was taken in Lake Dulverton.”
DAVID OBENDORF: So that’s the first instance. We have instances then through the 1860s, 1870s, there’s an allegation of importations using members of the military officers in the 1890s, this was one that is contentious, and then well into 1910, 1930, 1940, 1970 and potentially 1990.
FIONA BREEN: From single foxes brought by showmen to the more prominent case reported in the 1870s, when four foxes were imported on board the ship, The Ethel.
DAVID OBENDORF: They were thrown overboard because of the pressure that the captain was facing of being charged with importing an animal that was illegal, but one of them managed to swim ashore, disappeared up Kelly Steps into a drain.
FIONA BREEN: It was caught and given to the mysterious Tasmanian Acclimatisation Society, never to be seen again.
Despite intermittent reports of foxes ever since, Tasmania was considered fox free until the late 1990s.
That was until a story began circulating about three hunters who’d apparently brought three litters of fox club cubs into the state in a boot of a car on board the Spirit of Tasmania.
David Llewellyn, the then police and primary industries minister was so concerned he ordered a formal police inquiry into the allegations.
Widely circulated documents obtained under freedom of information show the secret police investigation found no evidence to corroborate the claims.
Former professional hunter Ian Rist knows those accused and says it’s just not true.
IAN RIST, RETIRED PROFESSIONAL HUNTER: There was an extensive police investigation and a very thorough police investigation involving some six detectives under commander Ivan Dean and Detective Inspector Michael Otley, including phone, everything was done, phone records, and they actually come up with no evidence at all to support or corroborate those allegations.
FIONA BREEN: The police briefed the Minister David Llewellyn in 2001 and yet the next year he was still talking about the allegations.
DAVID LLEWELLYN, FORMER MINISTER: We very clearly now have a number of hot spots around the states where someone has actually imported three sets of fox cubs and distributed them in various areas around the state.
FIONA BREEN: Even today, David Llewellyn believes fox cubs were brought into the state by hunters.
DAVID LLEWELLYN: National parks and wildlife advised me that they were absolutely certain that the information that they had was accurate, that some hunters had been to Victoria, or on the Mainland, hunting deer and they had bought three litters of fox cubs back to Tasmania, and then released them when they were juveniles.
One lot in and around Longford, another lot south of Oatlands and another lot on the east coast.
FIONA BREEN: He questions the thoroughness of the police investigation.
DAVID LLEWELLYN: Well, look, there was a whole lot of scepticism in the community about foxes and a lot of joking going on and people were treating it very, very, well not very seriously at all.
And I think the police could have done a better job, frankly.
IVAN DEAN, FMR COMMANDER, TASMANIA POLICE: These police are experienced investigators, we were told at a time by the Commissioner of Police that he required the best investigation it could be had in relation to this and that’s exactly what happened. It was a very good investigation.
FIONA BREEN: David Llewellyn says sightings of foxes in the areas where the cubs were thought to have been released authenticated the information.
That same year he secured $400,000 from the Commonwealth and the state committed $1.2 million for a fox taskforce.
Now after 10 years and tens of millions of dollars, whether the litters of fox cubs were brought into Tasmania or not, the question remains are there foxes out there and are they breeding?
Next week we will examine written the evidence gathered by the fox eradication team.
And look at what’s happening on the ground to hunt and eradicate the elusive pest.
Mercury Monday: Pincer attack on foxes
On Tasmanian Times:
Dr David Obendorf’s extensive articles on foxes: HERE
Dr Clive Marks’ forensic examination of the science: HERE
The unclaimed $5000 Fox Reward HERE