The introduction of cats to Australia is considered to be one of the most significant conservation issues in Australia. Cats will often hunt wildlife through instinct, even if their dietary needs are being met. While they have been known to feed on invasive mammals such as mice and rabbits, they also prey on native wildlife. At a local scale, there are currently 12 threatened native species, for which cats are listed as a threatening process. Land for Wildlife is working with domestic cat owners in central Australia to address responsible cat ownership, a key objective of the threat abatement plan for predation by feral cats.
Despite the staggering statistics, there is a great deal of variation in the behaviour of cats (which comes down to differences in management) and the perception of cat owners regarding their cat’s behaviour. Management of owned cats can be varied, ranging from well-cared for individuals that are maintained indoors, to outdoor cats that do not stray from home, and at the extreme scale to roaming cats that may have a negative impact on their surroundings. Poorly managed domestic cats can have a negative impact on wildlife populations through predation, add to the feral cat population, become a nuisance to neighbours, have an increased risk of catching or transmitting disease, or suffer injury as a result of roaming behaviours.
A recent survey conducted by the Alice Springs Town Council, found that over a third of cat owners allow their cats to roam, which indicates that there are a significant number of cats roaming within the Alice Springs municipality. The Alice Springs Town Council by-laws state that a domestic cat must be registered with the council, and that a cat must be kept within the property boundary at all times of the day. Despite the high number of roaming cats in Alice Springs, most of the general public care about the issue of predation by cats on native wildlife. This gives hope that the management of domestic cats can be modified with some education regarding the local bi-laws, the impact of domestic cats on local wildlife and the extent to which an individual cat can roam.
The Domestic Cat Monitoring and Awareness in Alice Springs program was established to engage domestic cat owners regarding the travelling patterns of their feline friends, to help them to make informed and responsible cat management decisions. We conducted a range of activities, including surveys conducted by domestic cat owners to ascertain their management priorities, GPS-tracking of domestic cats to assess the movements of domestic cats while roaming outside of the house and develop spatial maps for engaging with domestic cat owners, video surveillance of domestic cats to obtain visual footage of the travelling behaviour of roaming cats, and scat analysis to identify the diet of cats that roam outside of the house.
A total of 15 cats and their owners took part in the latest round of Domestic Cat Monitoring and Awareness, with only a half of the Alice Springs cats being registered with the town council. While all cats included in the study are known to roam away from home, three quarters of the owners agreed that their pet cat could be impacting wildlife while outside.
CatLog (CatTraQ) devices were used to track the domestic cats for a one-week period. The data obtained was used to develop spatial maps and calculate core home ranges of the domestic cats. According to the trackers, cats were recorded outside of the property boundary on 47 % of occasions, with 53 % of the tracked points occurring on the owner’s property. The cats in the tracking project travelled 31 m from home on average, with the furthest distance from home averaging 352 m. One particularly adventurous cat travelled as far as 500 m from home. The average cat did not venture further from home at night, compared to during the day, which is contrary to popular belief. The area covered by cats during the tracking period was 14 hectares on average (ranging from 3.5 Ha to 27.1 Ha), however the core home range area was 1.4 hectares on average (ranging from 0.2 Ha to 10.8 Ha).
A trial of the Eyenimal Cat Camera was conducted to determine the behaviour of the cats while roaming. Recording video footage of cats while outside of the house helped to highlight what the cat was doing while roaming. The cats involved in the surveillance portion of the project exhibited a range of behaviours, from extensive periods of sleeping, to active roaming in nearby native habitat. Several cats were observed wandering along river beds and neighbouring hillsides, trailing the scent of an animal, or simply exploring. Only one cat was caught on camera feeding on wildlife (a grasshopper). Video summaries for each cat are available on the Land for Wildlife YouTube channel: Domestic Cat Monitoring Stories, or view the playlist below:
To assist us in understanding the impact of predation by cats that are roaming outside, we analysed scats for foreign food items. Food items we were on the lookout for included components of birds, rodents, reptiles and insects. Processed commercial food was expected to break down, while other animals consumed would likely leave portions of bone, scale or fur, which could then be identified. Alice Springs based domestic cat scats contained insect material, Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus) and Fat-tailed Dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata). The mammal contents were confirmed via hair samples contained in the scats, as well as a fragment of lower mandible (jawbone).
The Dunnart findings are surprising, given that there is very little knowledge regarding the habitat preferences of Fat-tailed Dunnarts close to urban areas. This native animal is commonly found in grass, shrub or woodland in native habitat surrounding Alice Springs. The species is listed as ‘Least Concern’ and is therefore not threatened, despite many other native mammals becoming threatened by introduced predators, such as feral cats. The presence of Dunnarts in town blocks of Alice Springs is great news and the findings indicate that the Dunnart is capable of residing on, or travelling through, suburban town blocks.
The finding that a scat contained remains of Red Kangaroo is not as surprising, given that kangaroos can be found more commonly on the outskirts of Alice Springs. Kangaroo tail is also often brought into town by Indigenous community members returning from hunting trips. The skin and small meat remains of this species can often be found near fire pits following such visits to town. Kangaroos living on the outskirts of town may also succumb to demise through other means, before being fed on by roaming cats.
The domestic cats involved in this study roamed to neighbouring properties, road verges, adjacent bushland and some cats were observed to impact the local wildlife through predation. The results of the study show that even the domestic cats that do not leave their property boundary often, still have the capacity to negatively impact native wildlife. This suggests that the management of the domestic cats could do with improvement. We encourage all domestic cat owners to consider managing their domestic cats in a manner that will protect our native wildlife.
Responsible cat management options include:
- De-sex your cat to prevent it from adding to the feral cat population
- Microchip and register your cat with the Alice Springs Town Council so that it can be returned to you if it goes missing
- Keep your cat indoors so that it is not a nuisance to neighbours and does not negatively impact the local wildlife
- Install an outdoor cat play area to provide your cat with environmental stimuli that won’t impact on the local wildlife
- Provide toys and play options for your cat to keep it stimulated indoors
- Fit your cat with a bell, luminescent scrunchie, sonar or other device to alert wildlife to its presence
- Provide food ad libitum so that your cat has adequate access to food, to limit its dependence on wildlife as a food source
- Don’t release unwanted animals into the bush
The full Domestic Cat Monitoring and Awareness results report can be found on the Land for Wildlife website: wildlife.lowecol.com.au/about/projects/catmonitoring
This project is supported by Territory Natural Resource Management, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.
Fire has been an integral part of central Australian arid ecosystems for thousands of years. Fire is used by humans as a hunting aid, for signalling presence, for warmth and for cooking. Fire has a positive effect on germination of ephemeral plants, and is also known to be important for germination of many tough-coated seeding plants in central Australia (such as Hakea sp. and Greveilla sp.). As a result, many plant species have evolved to cope with periodic fire disturbance.
However, in central Australia, Buffel Grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) has changed the way that the land burns and so fuel reduction burning and slashed firebreaks are more important than ever. Buffel Grass grows fast following heavy rains, it generally out-competes native grasses (producing a thick monoculture), and when it burns – it burns hot and fast. Consequently, the presence of Buffel Grass can be problematic for controlling fire.
Lately (or not so lately?), Alice Springs has seen a spurt of fire in the Todd River, which has got many residents concerned about the fragility of the old River Red Gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis). The death of River Red Gums in the Todd River is saddening, as it means a loss of habitat for many of the amazing hollow-nesting birds and bats in the region. But there is a sentimental value to the beauty of the trees as well, which many long-term residents are keen to protect. Several of the large trees have cultural value to local Indigenous groups, which also warrants their protection from fire.
Removal of Buffel Grass around large River Red Gums (and other large trees) is one of the main ways that we can protect them. As a result of big summer rains, we have a huge fire risk with thick Buffel Grass growth around town and rural areas and there is a need for fuel reduction through slashing, spraying or prescribed burning.
Slashing is effective at removing Buffel Grass but it can be time-consuming and costly over large areas and is non-discriminatory (slashes the native grasses and herbs as well). It is best-suited to large and flat grassland areas that require quick fuel reduction.
Spraying can be effective at killing Buffel Grass but doesn’t remove the biomass and nor does it remove the fire hazard. Spraying as a technique is only effective when the Buffel Grass has green pick that is then able to absorb chemical for purposes of killing the root system. At this time of year, much of the Buffel Grass is dry and needs to be chipped out with a mattock if working at a small scale. Chemical is expensive and so is the time needed to spray large areas of Buffel Grass. With the loss of funding to programs such as Green Army – where does the funding come from to support such endeavours? In this case, the town largely relies on groups such as Landcare, as well as individual residents to volunteer their time and do the hard yards. Adopt an area or a tree and go from there!
Fuel reduction by prescribed burning an essential component of fire management, and in most cases the aim is to reduce the ground cover by 60 to 80 %. Such prescribed burning can be effective for a year or two in protecting large trees and habitats from large-scale fires, as well as preventing the spread of large fires. Prescribed burning needs permits and trained fire teams to conduct appropriately and becomes tricky within municipal areas – so it isn’t a reliable venture for protecting the large gums in the Todd River.
Want to know how you can help protect the River Red Gums? Read more about the recent suggestions in Fiona Walsh’s article (http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/2017/07/30/save-our-trees-reduce-buffel-call-000-collaborate/).
If fire takes hold, what is the consequence for our wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole?
In terms of the soil, there will be an immediate loss of soil organic matter, and nutrients will be mobilised following a fire. These nutrients have the potential to be relocated downslope (hillside fires) or downstream (riverside or river island fires). There is an immediate loss of groundcover (plants) and leaf litter, which in turn can make an area susceptible to erosion, and result in wetter soils (fewer plants to absorb water through the roots).
Many central Australian birds (such as Cockatoos, Nightjars and Owls) rely on large tree hollows for nesting space. Following a fire, general bird abundance in the area will remain stable; however the loss of hollows can result in a long-term reduction in the population of hollow-nesting species. The loss of a small number of trees may not affect the ecosystem balance to a huge degree, while a large loss of trees may be consequential.
Bat population stability following fire depends on the insect population. Invertebrate population is extremely variable in time and space with or without fire. It is driven by environmental factors such as temperature, rainfall and insolation; and therefore the effect of fire is extremely difficult to determine. As a result, the effect of fire on bat populations will depend on a host of environmental factors as well.
Mammals can experience some initial mortality as a direct result of fire, and in the period following fire there can be increased predation due to lack of cover, and emigration from burnt areas. Patch burning can alleviate the risk to mammals to some extent – leaving intact patches of habitat for mammals to retreat to can be effective at protecting mammal populations.
For reptiles, the effect of fire on populations will depend on the amount of leaf litter and hollow logs left intact for shelter and foraging for food. Patch burning can provide useful refuges for skinks, lizards and snakes, and therefore populations can recover quickly after small and patchy fires. If a large tree with hollows does fall, it’s important to remember that while their hollows may no longer be useful as bird nesting sites, if left in place, they will provide useful habitat for many of the native reptiles in time.
So while fire can leave scars on the land and reduce the number of old hollow-bearing trees, in healthy ecosystems fire is important to regeneration of ephemerals and the wildlife can cope readily with small-scale and patchy fires. It’s the large fires that take hold in fuel-rich areas that are a concern, and fire in fragile systems such as rivers can result in a change in nutrient levels and erosion on the banks. The sentimentality of the beautiful old River Red Gums means that fire in Todd is an unwelcome event that we would like to avoid, which means removing Buffel Grass before a fire takes hold.
Want to do your bit? There are several keen Landcare (https://www.alicespringslandcare.com/ ) groups in Alice Springs that are removing weedy species to make way for the native forbs, which is proving successful at preventing the spread of large fires. Join a group near you!
By Candice Appleby
Chickens make great mates, to you and to your garden. They not only provide you and your family with a wealth of freshly laid eggs. They also produce incredibly nitrogen rich fertiliser and reduce the amount of household waste in the form of food scraps heading to landfill at the tip. It is now approaching the time of year when the chicks you purchased at the Alice Springs Show are starting to get big enough to be moved out to your chicken run. Have you got everything ready, and how can you maximise the benefit from your new family member?
Here in Alice Springs there are a few things you need to consider when constructing and maintaining an outside chicken run!
Weather conditions can be quite variable. Summer is quite the character-builder and our chickens respond to the heat in much a similar way to us. Ensure you provide adequate shade and a sufficient water supply. A little trick I use is hooking up the chickens’ water supply to the garden irrigation system, much like you would with a bird bath, this ensures the chickens water gets topped up daily and your chickens are happy!
Winter nights can also get down to seriously cool temperatures. Provide an insulated nesting box made of wood for your chickens to keep warm and lay eggs. Chickens will also tend to eat more in winter (don’t we all) so don’t worry if you are finding them going through more food.
Something that can often be overlooked in the backyard chicken run, but is vitally essential, is a good old-fashioned dust bath. A dust bath is great for prevention of parasite infestation in the chickens’ feathers and legs. The simplest way to provide this is just a small cleared area covered with some dusting material; sand is the best for this purpose. Remember to keep this area moderately clean of faeces and food scraps by raking it out and adding fresh dusting material regularly. If, however, you want to treat your ladies to a day at the chicken spa, add a few herbs like rosemary, lavender, thyme and mint. This will leave them feeling pampered and smelling lovely, while utilising the herbs’ natural insecticide and anti-inflammatory properties. If you’re finding mites, fleas and ticks are still becoming a problem, you can also try popping a handful of garlic husks in the chicken nesting boxes to help prevent infestation.
Feeding your chickens is quite easy, they eat everything right? Well, somewhat, but not exactly. It’s important not to over-feed your chickens. Typically only feed your chickens the amount they can eat in ten minutes. Also, be sure not use food scraps that are showing signs of rot, as rotten scraps can be a source for botulism disease.
Foods not to give to chickens:
Decomposing material or maggots
Meat or bones
Raw potato peels
The outcome: So many Eggs!
Now that your chickens are happy and settled into their new home it won’t be long until they start popping out eggs left and right (unless you have yourself a rooster!). Keep in mind, in order to sell your chickens eggs, you will need to be registered as a food business. However, for private consumption simply ensure your eggs are thoroughly cleaned, throw away any cracked eggs not suitable for consumption and store the rest in the refrigerator below any cooked or ready to eat foods. It is important to also remember that over the counter wormers and medicated feed have the potential to transfer to the eggs. Take note of any warnings on packaging and the respect egg ‘Withholding Periods’ (WHP).
Everything is fair in love and chickens; however it is important to be aware of legalities. Luckily for us here in Alice Springs there aren’t too many restrictions regarding keeping chickens on your premises, for either rural or suburban properties. Alice Springs by-law states that “chickens have to be contained in a securely fenced yard or run which is no closer to a house than 12 metres”.
Northern Territory Government also requires properties with poultry to be registered with a ‘Property Identification Code’ (PIC) regardless of the number of animals on the property. This PIC is a biosecurity tool to help the government manage any outbreaks of disease by quickly and efficiently notifying anyone who may be effected. Registration is free and can be completed online at www.nt.gov.au/industry/agriculture/livestock/get-aproperty-identification-code
Enjoy your new garden friends!
~ Candice Appleby
By Candice Appleby
To celebrate National Tree Day on Sunday 30th July, the Land for Wildlife team hosted an official launch of the new online interactive Central Australia Register of Significant Trees map. Thanks to the support from Territory Natural Resource Management, Olive Pink Botanic Gardens and Low Ecological Services P/L.
It was a lovely mild winter’s afternoon at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens on Sunday the 30th July. The birds were singing, the breeze was softly blowing and all the trees were celebrating happily as it was their day – National Tree Day.
Land for Wildlife was pleased to call this the setting of the official launch of Central Australia’s Register of Significant Trees interactive online map. There was a great turn out on the day with around 30 people attending. Over a cuppa and slice of delightful cake (baked by Caragh Heenan, our ever so talented Land for Wildlife coordinator), attendees had the chance to learn a little more about the history of the register and the recent work that has brought it to its new digital platform. Some great discussions took place around how the register should be presented to the public regarding retaining historical listings if the trees may be no longer present, and what actions we as a community can take to advocate for tree protection in and around the Alice Springs municipality. The latter seemed to be a major concern to those attending, with many developments proposed in the local area and Alice Springs currently having no tree protection by-laws in place.
Fiona Walsh also presented an update from the ‘Strategies to reduce loss of our Red River Gum Habitat’ meeting that took place at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens in late July. Offering some suggestions and insight as to how the community can get behind preventing habitat loss in the Todd River caused by wildfires through management and wildfire response. Thank you Fiona for your contribution!
The launch also served as an opportunity to announce an open expression of interest to members of the public to join the NT Significant Trees Committee. This committee will be responsible for attending triannual meetings to discuss significant tree matters and to conduct final assessments of new listing nominations. If you think you would like to join the NT Significant Trees Committee send an email through to email@example.com and let us know!!
It was a great afternoon tea and a nice way to spend National Tree Day. Land for Wildlife would like to thank Territory Natural Resource Management for supporting this event through the National Landcare Program with a small community grant. TNRM made it possible for LFW to host the event as well as design and print a new NT Significant Trees brochure to be available at upcoming community events and downloadable from the Land for wildlife website.
We would also like to thank Olive Pink Botanic Gardens for providing the wonderful venue for the day, and the on-going support from Low Ecological Services P/L.
Head to the project page at the Land for Wildlife website to read more about the register, see a list of the trees on the central Australian register, download PDF fact sheets about the trees and even take a ‘virtual’ tour of the register via an interactive Google Map.
~ Candice Appleby
As the Domestic Cat Monitoring and Awareness in Alice Springs project starts to wrap up, we have been engaging with domestic cat owners that took part in the project regarding the monitoring results. We conducted a workshop this month on the findings from the cat monitoring, which will be officially released in a report next month. The owners had positive feedback from the monitoring and were genuinely interested about the results from the GPS-tracking, video surveillance and scat analysis.
The video surveillance is the first item on the agenda for the public and has been released on our YouTube channel. Head there to see all Land for Wildlife videos or go and watch the videos as a playlist.
Stay posted for the official release of the monitoring results – coming soon!