The only four-legged foxes that have come to Tasmania in the past 13 years came here because our State border quarantine was incapable of detecting them – dead or alive - and keeping them out.
Embarrassingly in 1998 a fox was allowed to get on a boat in Melbourne and get off in Burnie. Apparently 250 km stretch of water was no physical deterrent to the entry of a live fox. In 2001 the same thing happened – another fox, now known officially as ‘the Agfest Fox’ escaped from an interstate container as it was unloaded at the annual agricultural show.
Doubly embarrassing. What to do?
The ‘Fox Plot’ was born; it became far easier (and less embarrassing) to construct and then foster the notion that several Tasmanians were involved in covert attempts to smuggle in young foxes, raise them in secret and release them into the wild at several locations across the State.
This extraordinary claim contained in a ‘Confidential Briefing Note’ handed to Minister David Llewellyn by his Department was far too convenient and a yet no public authority, including Tasmania Police, has been able to substantiate that allegation. Despite the posting of a substantial State Government reward ($50,000) and the instigation of a Police Taskforce made up of CIB personnel, the information prepared and provided by DPIWE staff in 2001 to their Minister has failed to uncover any clandestine ring of malevolent fox smugglers. The ‘original source’ was interviewed by the Police in mid-2001; he claimed he had been verballed.
‘[The informant – name blacked out] expressed amazement as to how much information, details, names and locations could be logged through him. He was unequivocal in that the contents of his [written] statement were as much as he ever said.’ [Reference: Police FOI documents relating to a Police investigation conducted in June or July 2001.]
There is a timeline of incidents that highlights the insecurity of our Tasmanian borders to the entry of single live foxes and fox material (dead foxes and skins) that were used for the purposes of hoaxing and fabrication. Disturbing information - never before offered up by the Government’s own nature conservation authorities - was only provided by Tasmania Police under the Freedom of Information Act. Their documents include witness statements alleging that a live fox was seen escaping from an interstate freight container at the Agfest site near Carrick in late April or early May 2001. That incident was supported by the sighting of a fox by Chris Spencer on Illawarra Road on 15 May 2001. If that information had been assessed wisely, the conclusion would have been that a live fox had again breached Tasmania’s quarantine barrier.
The other embarrassing Tasmanian entries of foxes included – (1) the butchered fox displayed at a livestock saleyard at Cooee in June 1999; (2) a similar fox pelt prominently displayed on a Hydro pole near Lilydale in June 2002; this was a recently skun fox - complete with feet, scrotum and head; (3) the importation of whole dead foxes by Tasmanian hunters returning from the Australian mainland and (4) dumping of a recently-killed fox on the roadside in Burnie in October 2003.
All these incidents occurred.
The most troubling is the last one because even today it is used as ‘hard physical evidence’ for the presence of foxes in Tasmania when the Department now accepts it was another prank set up through the interstate freight ferry service.
Police FOI documents also highlight the difficulties experienced by Police Taskforce officers in their ability to corroborate information, which included the identification of several individuals provided to them through DPIWE contacts. The sensational ‘Fox Plot’ claim was based on DPIWE’s briefing note which in turn was formulated on an allegation of one informant.
From the Tasmania Police FOI documents:
‘[The informant – name blacked out] was more than happy to take the time from his work site to meet and discuss this issue with us [Tasmania Police Taskforce]. The original statement he made was discussed, along with some briefing notes and details of the Confidential Note.
In this enquiry with our agenda in mind, I make these summations and also take into account the other role of wildlife personnel on alleged sightings etc, that there is no solid physical, forensic/scientific evidence to support findings of illegal importations of fox or presence of fox in Tasmania.
With our agenda in mind, I cannot explain the full contents and information that came to be in the Minister’s Briefing Note. I can only say that our investigation was a totally negative finding.
Tasmania Police documents demonstrate that the information provided to Minister Llewellyn in mid-2001 was not based on any thing of substance from an ‘original source’.
So, if the ‘informant’ wasn’t the original source, where else did DPIWE receive the names of persons involved in fox smuggling come from?
When these named individuals were interviewed, the Police FOI documents state:
‘All persons spoken to [by Tasmania Police Taskforce] express their concerns about the presence of the fox. All have stated they themselves will talk and listen and pass on any relevant information to the authorities.
I feel that all persons spoken to - co-operated fully, with total understanding and will continue to co-operate.
So, there was no substance to the fox smuggling allegation. Then Police Commissioner, Richard McCreadie reported this to the then Minister for Police (and DPIWE) David Llewellyn in mid-July 2001. Astonishingly in June 2002, David Llewellyn resurrected the same claim that there was evidence that numerous foxes were smuggled in and released at four locations in Tasmania. There was no evidence! His Department of Primary Industries and Water had none and his Police Department had given him a full account of their fruitless investigations. By this time, numerous elected representatives in the State and Federal Parliament were openly sceptical.
Generally once a Minister of the Crown has committed himself and taken a submission for long-term funding to Cabinet, there is a reluctance to change. We are seeing this repeated in 2011.
The greatest weakness in attempts at keeping Tasmania fox free has been the threat posed by trans-Strait shipping and the clear evidence that the fox populations in nearby Australia were a risk for Tasmania.
As the years rolled on….2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 to now, the incontrovertible, irrefutable evidence of live foxes in various locations in Tasmania was not forthcoming. In 2001, David Llewellyn went to his counterpart in the Commonwealth government to secure extra funds to support the ‘fox-free program’, but the Commonwealth declined to oblige; in fact a very public disagreement ensued over this issue. In the end the State government funded the program principally out of its own consolidated revenue. This meant a number of jobs for beleaguered rangers and the establishment of the Fox-Free Task Force.
A decade on, we have seen the laying of over 150,000 1080-meat baits and Department propaganda on fox sightings and fox ‘evidence’ clogging the newspapers. It was far too convenient to entertain the notion that a cabal of hunters were the cause of foxes in Tasmania.
With a large urban fox population sitting close by in southern Australia, Tasmania has always been at risk of fox entry through shipping. The inadequate quarantine standards and shenanigans at the sea ports on both sides of the Strait have not helped one iota. There has been a denial of this ever-present risk, and whilst ever this opportunity remains open, further entry of foxes is likely.
It was too convenient to believe the covert action of several individuals to smuggle in up to 19 fox cubs into the State, because it was too embarrassing to admit that the State borders were insecure and it seemed too hard to find an effective remedy.
[Postscript: This analysis was presented with substantiating documentation to a fox review panel in early 2006.]