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On the fox frontline
Source: Stateline Tasmania
Published: Friday, October 15, 2010 7:30 AEDT
Expires: Thursday, January 13, 2011 7:30 AEDT

Stateline goes out into the field with the Fox Eradication Branch and puts its evidence to the test.

Tags: states-and-territories, agribusiness, animals, tas

Listen, Watch HERE

Transcript follows ...

AIRLIE WARD, PRESENTER: The fear of the devastating impact of foxes has prompted the Tasmanian Government to spend tens of millions of dollars on an eradication program, even though a live fox or even a fresh carcass have never been found.

Stateline’s Fiona Breen spent time on the frontline of the latest campaign against the elusive pest. Despite all the hard work, questions remain about the rigour of the program’s evidence.

DAVID CUNNINGHAM: Come here, missy. Here, missy.

FIONA BREEN, REPORTER: Little Missy, a German short haired pointer, is the newest weapon in Tasmania’s war against the elusive fox. She’s the youngest in a team of six dogs being trained to sniff out foxes.

High hopes are held for the dogs, which are expected to be ready for the job early next year.

DAVID CUNNINGHAM: They’re undergoing intensive training at the moment which includes spending quite a lot of time in Victoria, where they’re exposed to real live situations with foxes.

Good boy. Here Jake.

FIONA BREEN: The dogs will be part of the frontline in the multi-million dollar fox eradication program.

PETER CREMASCO, POST BAITING PROGRAM: That will increase our ability to deal with the individual survivors which may occur and, when you’re dealing in an eradication program, it’s the individual animal that’s important.

Every individual is as important, as others.

FIONA BREEN: In cases like the recent alleged sighting at Sandford, they would be the key part of the follow up, brought in to sniff out the interloper.

ROBERT JUDD: Patch ran after an animal which to me was a fox, had a red bushy tail, it was a red body and it ran. Patch chased it straight up the hill.

FIONA BREEN: So far this year, there’s been 327 sightings. Since 2002, there’s been 2,401. Each one is followed with a phone call and sometimes a visit.

While the sightings continue, the eradication team is working on a new approach. Following recommendations from a review by Landcare Research New Zealand, they’ve adopted precautionary tactics. The mantra ‘We can’t afford not to act’.

ALAN JOHNSTON, FOX ERADICATION BRANCH MANAGER: Do we want to live in a community where there are no bettongs, where there are no eastern barred bandicoots, where there are no native hens? Because that’s the sort of thing that’s likely to happen if we aren’t successful in eradicating foxes from Tasmania.

FIONA BREEN: The first part of the program is burying 1080 baits on properties across the State, before there’s any evidence or even sightings.

NICK BATES, BAITING PROGRAM: We’ve done some modelling to determine where foxes are most likely to be in the State. We’re talking about areas that, the sorts of areas you would expect foxes to be found in - farmland, fragmented landscapes, open forest even.

FIONA BREEN: Shaun Brooks is part of a small team of baiters, traversing properties across Bruny Island, the Huon and Esperance. They’ve got 1.2 million hectares of the State to go.

NICK BATES: We contact the land owners, get permission to go on to the land, we won’t go on to the land without permission.

Once we have that permission, we will then notify neighbours that we are going to if we choose to bait that property, we are going to bait it and then we go and do that. Now baiting lasts between 14 and 28 days.

FIONA BREEN: It’s a lonely job walking kilometres of bushland and paddocks, finding the perfect fox habitat to lay the meat based 1080 baits.

NICK BATES: In low levels, as we use it, it’s very target specific to foxes and the risk to wildlife is low.

FIONA BREEN: Behind the baiting team are the scat detectors.

David Cunningham and his dogs and scat survey workers Brett Woodruff and Ling Liu Chapman.

Head down, eyes searching for scats across open paddocks, fence and creek lines, wood piles and patches of bush are given special focus;

Thousand of scats have been collected over the years. Each one is bagged up and sent to the University of Canberra for DNA analysis.

Over three years and 1.6 million hectares so far, only 56 have tested positive for fox DNA.

ALAN JOHNSTON: In recent times it’s been the fox scats that have been the strongest sign of the presence of a small number of foxes in the State.

FIONA BREEN: The rest of the evidence the fox eradication team lists includes four carcasses, one skull, one blood and two foot prints.

But walk down any street in Tasmania and there are differing opinions on whether there are foxes in the State.

There’s also doubt in the scientific community, particularly about whether there’s a breeding population.

Wildlife pathologist David Obendorf is well known for raising questions about the fox evidence but there is some evidence he does accept.

DAVID OBENDORF, WILDLIFE PATHOLOGIST: The incident in 1998 with the escape of a fox off a Burnie ferry was real. It was genuine. It was clearly something that happened.

FIONA BREEN: He also accepts the 2001 fox sighting by Chris Spencer and the 2003 Conara sighting by a former ranger conducting a wildlife survey.

DAVID OBENDORF: For me, they’re the three compelling incidents where there’s been the presence of a fox in the wild in Tasmania.

FIONA BREEN: But he says questions can be raised about all the rest.

He examined evidence from the carcass of the fox body found in 2006 at Glen Esk Road, Conara. The carcass was paraded to the media only hours after it was found. David Obendorf was suspicious. He requested and was given access to photographs and samples from the fox.

DAVID OBENDORF: I questioned the time of death, the cause of death and the place of death. I believed that that fox was much older than what they had considered, that the time of death was probably several days prior to when they alleged that it had occurred.

FIONA BREEN: He believed there were more questions than answers.

DAVID OBENDORF: The pathology and the forensics confirmed it for me, that this was a fabricated case.

The incident was not an authentic case and subsequently in the public accounts committee inquiry one of the biologists conceded that the animal had been killed somewhere else and moved, which just threw the whole thing into derision.

FIONA BREEN: David Obendorf argues that none of the remaining evidence is irrefutable.

DAVID OBENDORF: I am always looking for a compelling piece of evidence that links there what they call hard evidence of a fox incident with physical fox remains to an area in which they’re found.

I believe that there is nothing within the evidence stream that’s offered amongst the bodies, the skull, the blood that indicates anything but transportable evidence.

FIONA BREEN: The eradication team says that fox positive scats discovered around the State are the best evidence of foxes in Tasmania.

Further genotyping analysis of 15 of those fox positive scats found each one comes from a different fox.

ALAN JOHNSTON: They’ve thrown up 15 individuals. What we don’t know, of course, is whether any of the others, which haven’t been able to be genotyped, may have been matching.

FIONA BREEN: The rest had degraded too much for genotyping.

Freedom of Information documents suggest the eradication team may have imported six to 700 scats from interstate for training sniffer dogs without the appropriate authority, also casting suspicion on the scat evidence.

Legislative Councillor Ivan Dean has asked the Government to prove the fox team was authorised to bring fox scats from interstate.

IVAN DEAN, FORMER POLICE COMMANDER: I have had one answer simply saying that no authority is necessary at all.

However, I’ve now, as I’ve said, looked at the site, their site, the department’s site since then and it’s been bought to my attention as well, where in the quarantine documentation it makes a clear position there that to bring scats and fox products into this State, you do need proper authorisation.

FIONA BREEN: Retired professional hunter Ian Rist has long followed the eradication team’s efforts.

He’s been tracking the importation of scats and wants to know why so many were imported.

IAN RIST, FORMER PROFESSIONAL HUNTER: There was a permit issued to bring in fox scats in 2005, but it was only for six months. To my knowledge, I can’t find another permit that’s been issued since. There seems to be mass confusion.

FIONA BREEN: He’s also concerned scats planted for dog training may have exposed properties to hydatids, a potentially fatal disease that can kill livestock and even humans.

A recent public outcry about the threat to Tasmania’s hydatids-free status has prompted a change of policy.

ALAN JOHNSTON: We’ve actually reconsidered our procedures here and in future all scats that we use in those programs will either be from captive foxes on the mainland, which have been treated for hydatids, or if they’re from wild foxes on the mainland, we will freeze the scats on arrival to kill any hydatid eggs that might be present.

FIONA BREEN: The FOI documents also reveal the team looked at importing live foxes to flush others out.

Former Minister David Llewellyn is a still a supporter of the proposal.

DAVID LLEWELLYN, FORMER ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: I was looking at the question of actually following foxes with radio collars and so on, that hasn’t happened.

FIONA BREEN: You were considering bringing in a couple of foxes and putting tracking devices on them to attract others?

DAVID LLEWELLYN: Some were saying it’s very difficult to keep tracking devices on foxes. I think the technology now that we have would enable us to do that and you could in fact neuter the fox.

FIONA BREEN: The fox eradication team is trying hard to convince Tasmania it’s on the right track. They know they need the elusive smoking gun - irrefutable evidence that foxes are in the State. A fresh carcass or a live stock fox may be the only way.

David Obendorf recently increased the reward he’s offering for proof from $1,000 to $5,000.

DAVID OBENDORF: I am hoping that this is the way to really demonstrate to ordinary Tasmanians that if there is a fox in your background, there’s probably $5,000, one off, one off payment of $5,000 for a person who catches or shoots and kills a freshly dead fox and notifies me within 24 hours of that happening.

FIONA BREEN: The best result for State’s environment would be that the reward is never claimed and no evidence of foxes breeding in the State ever found.

Fox dollars
Source: Stateline Tasmania
Published: Friday, October 15, 2010 7:42 AEDT
Expires: Thursday, January 13, 2011 7:42 AEDT

An interview with Environment Minister David O’Byrne on the Government’s investment in fox eradication.

Tags: states-and-territories, agribusiness, pest-management, animals, tas

Listen, Watch HERE

Transcript follows ...

On Tasmanian Times (for the past century or so):

Dr David Obendorf’s extensive articles on foxes: HERE

Dr Clive Marks’ forensic examination of the science: HERE

The unclaimed $5000 Fox Reward HERE