Image for What happened on Illawarra Rd in 2001?

In the evening of 15 May 2001 Chris Spencer saw a red fox on Illawarra Road - the link road between Longford and the Bass Highway. He reported the sighting and shortly afterwards that part of northern Tasmania became fox-central.

Where had the fox come from?

Over the coming days and weeks tracking down this elusive fox became the beginning of Tasmania’s 9 year long love affair with foxes!

Stories abound…but there is one story that has to be correct. This fox could have been called the $40-million dollar fox because it was the trigger for significant public funding for the Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment over the next the next nine years. 

Most Tasmanians are probably unaware that back in early May 2001 DPIWE released a story to the Tasmanian media that someone in the Wynyard area claimed that they had seen a fox in a pine plantation near Wynyard and taken a photograph of the animal. Sensational good fortune; but it appears apart from the media splash the authenticity of the photograph was never proven. It was ‘scene 1’ in the main play. 

When the fox is seen on Illawarra Road on 15 May - the media doesn’t snap into action until the 26 May.

Why the delay?

But once Tally Ho is sounded, the fox hunt is on in full earnest.

What happened in those intervening days?

We know that Minister Llewellyn was told soon after the report came in and he visited Launceston (close to fox central on 17 May).  After the 26 May the local media was primed for action and so, it seems, was the DPIWE Incident Control headquarters. A tuft of red hair was sent anonymously to PWS Prospect complete with a map of where it was found; dead birds were submitted; footprints left in moist clay were preserved; a fox was apparently caught then freed itself from a chicken coop near Longford; cameras rushed from the USA and sand traps are set up near chicken pens. Several well-known locals (hunters and poachers) with a particular interest in running foxes and foxhunters ragged offered their helpful hints and information. A team of bloodhounds and fox hunters from Victoria is flown in; spends a few days at fox-central and then are packed off home. The first fox droppings were found and sent off to poo-experts on the mainland.

But after a month Tasmania’s Longford fox-at-large, like the Burnie escapee fox in 1998 had disappeared… seemingly.

Not for long - two faceless gentlemen come to the rescue in July. They pose with a dead fox by a road sign 8 km from Longford. Tally ho, the hunt on again. After more media hype a putrid fox skin is posted to the fox incident control HQ and a searcher finds a print in the mud around a lagoon just a few hundred meters from where the dead fox was displayed by the road sign. The fox is immortalised as the ‘Longford fox’.

For the newspaper readers this looks all done a dusted. Rampaging fox at large…elusive as ever foxes are… finally hunted down by anonymous locals…end of story.

Well, no.

Enter David Llewellyn - Minister for Police and all things agricultural - with his Confidential Briefing Note claiming that a cabal of named individuals had smuggled in several lots of fox cubs from Victoria and reared them in secrecy and then released them in several places across Tasmania.

Sensational environmental terrorism!

The Tasmania Police Taskforce is set up on 20 June to ascertain whether anything in this precisely detailed third-hand hearsay could be substantiated. That kept a team of CIB Police at it for 6 weeks. Result: Zilch!

But hang on a bit…why weren’t Police on the job on 17 May when DPIWE first kicked off on this fox caper?

Did the Police get to investigate the Longford property where foxes had been kept in pens?

Did the Police get to inspect any premise where fox pens were demolished?

Were Police informed of the discussions amongst senior PWS and DPIWE managers about these matters in the month BEFORE they were commissioned by their Minister to investigate the named Tasmanians?

When did David Llewellyn inform the then Opposition Leader, Sue Napier about what his Department officers had really discovered in the Longford area?

Why weren’t the people who had held foxes in captivity not charged with multiple offences under several State laws?

What happened on Illawarra Road in May 2001?