About this episode

For the protection of Little Penguins, Short-tailed Shearwaters, Eastern Barred Bandicoots and other wildlife at Phillip Island Nature Parks, it is vital we have programs to manage vertebrate pests such as foxes and feral cats. In this episode, Ranger Meagan talks to special guest Ranger Ash about how he protects nature for wildlife through pest management, and Ranger Skye gets up close and personal with our conservation dogs.


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Transcript

Skye

This is Nature Unfiltered, where you meet our team, hear their stories, and become inspired to protect nature for wildlife in your own corner of the world.

Meagan

Hi, and welcome to Nature Unfiltered. I'm Meagan.

Skye

And I'm Skye.

Meagan

And today we're going to be talking about pest and feral animals. So, there's a range of pest animals that have had a negative impact upon the environment and biodiversity here on Millowl.

Skye

Now Millowl is another name for Phillip Island. So, I'd like to take this moment to acknowledge the traditional custodians of Phillip Island, the Bunurong of the Kulin nation and I'd like to pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

Meagan

And with European settlement, there has come a range of animals that aren't native to Phillip Island, like foxes and feral cats, which directly threaten our wildlife through predation. And then we have other animals like rabbits that impact our native wildlife by competing for food and resources and destroying the habitat for other wildlife. So together with local council, community, Phillip Island Nature Parks is working towards removing the threat of pest animal species from Phillip Island, and from Millowl to ensure the survival of our native wildlife in this fragile ecosystem.

Skye

Yeah, and of course, feral animals and pest animals are a problem right across Australia, aren't they? But here on islands, you've got a special opportunity, almost, where if you can remove them, they can't really get back in because you're surrounded by water.

Meagan

Yeah. We're very lucky that a lot of effort has been put into removing feral animals from our island home, so we can create a safe haven here for our beautiful wildlife.

Skye

Exactly. Now we'll probably talk a fair bit about cats today, but we really want to make it clear that when we say "cat" in this episode, we are talking about feral cats and feral cat control, not about domestic cats.

Meagan

Yeah. That is a really important distinction to make. And to talk about that today, we're joined by Ashley Reed our Vertebrate Pest Officer here at Phillip Island Nature Parks.

Hi, Ash. How are you going?

Ashley

Very well, and you?

Meagan

Good. Thanks for joining us today.

Ashley

Not a problem.

Meagan

Now, Ash, can you please tell us a little bit about your role?

Ashley

Well, it can be a bit varied I suppose, but the team has three primary focuses foxes, cats, and rabbits. We haven't had too much fox action for a couple of years. But we're still active, following up signs on the island of fox activity and working on the mainland to reduce the pressure of foxes reinvading. And rabbits, we work with local landholders. But it's a huge job trying to eradicate rabbits, but most of my work is involved with the feral cats. And so, we run tracking programs to try and remove feral cats from various parts of the park. And it's obviously an extensive park, long stretches of beaches, woodland areas, important bird-nesting habitat and all sorts of things. So, we're out there across the year trying to cover most of the park.

So, my mornings are generally spent checking feral cat traps and afternoons spent any number of ways, could be resetting traps or setting traps in new areas, repairing traps, organizing baits. We've got the camera traps too, that we use, so not just cage traps, but camera traps to try and work out where there is activity. And that takes a bit of time to manage the camera traps and make sure the cameras are in good condition when they come back in from the field before they go out again. And if they're out there, getting SD cards out of them and batteries and changing those over fairly regularly. So, all sorts of things we're doing.

Meagan

Yeah, wow, that sounds like a big job. Now you mentioned you put out cat traps, you put out cameras, what's kind of the most interesting or crazy thing you've caught in a trap or seen on a camera.

Ashley

Possibly two different things. We do pick up some unusual things in the traps particularly as we're trying to get cats and we try and set them so that they interest only cats, but a lot of other things, a plant known as catnip that is very attractive to cats, we thought might only be attractive to cats, but Eastern Barred Bandicoots turn up chasing catnip for some strange reason. And yeah. We get echidnas in the traps, which can be a real nuisance because they can wreck a trap overnight, just trying to get themselves into some safe position.

Meagan

That's a prickly job! Oh wow. All sorts of things. And you mentioned that foxes are kind of mostly out of the picture now, we're working on maintaining our fox-free status. It's great to see our wildlife thriving in the absence of foxes and speaking.

Ashley

Oh, no doubt about it and I suppose the other thing too that's really important is that, in the past, you could fairly regularly have mass kills of penguins where you might find dozens of penguins in a single morning having been killed by foxes. We just, you don't get that anymore. So, although there's not that many more penguins in the population, there's nonetheless much, much less pressure on those that are there to try and cope with those introduced predators around their rookeries.

Meagan

Yeah, I've read that a fox in one night could kill something crazy, like 40 or 60 penguins.

Ashley

Yeah. Look, we've had ute-loads in the past that have been picked up in a morning. It's mad, really.

Meagan

Yeah. Wow. And look, we're all about protecting nature for wildlife here at Phillip Island Nature Parks and Ash, how does your role help protect nature for wildlife?

Ashley

I like to look at it this way. There have been billions of years of geology and evolution that have come together to produce Phillip Island's unique biodiversity, and yet over the last 200 years or so, the introduction of various pest plants and animals have had an incredible impact on that biodiversity. Obviously, my focus is on the wildlife side of it. The possibility of losing or degrading that, that really rich biodiversity is, is huge. And so, I take great satisfaction, I suppose, in being able to try and mitigate the impacts of those predators and competitors to our native wildlife and try and give them a chance. When you think that there used to be a dozen penguin colonies on the island, and we're down to one that, you know, they've copped it, the wildlife. And anything we can do to try and make life a bit easier for them is a really important contribution we can make. And, and until we reverse the impacts on our wildlife from the pressure that these introduced species have, we're not going to be able to sort of reverse the decline in numbers or the low numbers that some of our native species find themselves in.

Meagan

Yeah. And by making a pest-free island, we are hoping to kind of create an island arc, a safe place with some of these animals, isn't that right?

Ashley

Yeah, that's right. That's, that's a really important other element is it's not just what was here, but we've had the opportunity because we're an island and because we've managed to get it fox-free that we can start to introduce some species that are really suffering. Because those problems, feral cats and foxes are a problem, not just on Phillip Island, but across Australia, and so animals that are suffering or species that are suffering in other parts of the country can find some sanctuary on islands where we can eliminate those predation pressures. And so, the nature park has got a program there where we can hopefully, well we're having some great success with Eastern Barred Bandicoot, and hopefully in the future can have success with other species will benefit from the reduced pressure from predators, introduced predators at least.

Meagan

Very exciting. And like you said, it doesn't matter where you live. This is kind of an issue all around Australia. So, what's something that anyone listening can do to help tackle the issue of pest and feral animals at their homes.

Ashley

Well, the most important thing anyone can do really is to be a responsible pet owner. There are two aspects to this, and I come from the point of view of protecting wildlife, but there's also just protecting your pet by being a responsible pet owner. But the protecting wildlife side of things is that cats roaming, and this is just roaming cats. So, we're just talking about domestic cats, that are allowed to roam at night, are responsible for the death of about 390 million animals per year in Australia. So that's over a million a night and as an individual cat, most cats will kill somewhere around 186 animals per year. So that's one every two nights. And even if you think that your cat's not doing that sort of damage, because you don't see the evidence of it, they tend to only bring home about 15% of those kills. So, you're not going to see anywhere near the extent of the damage that a roaming cat might do.

But if that doesn't impress a cat owner, then it's while they're roaming that they're at risk of injury certainly on roads. Cats can roam for great distances at night, much further than a lot of cat owners realize I suspect. And they're certainly at risk of death and injury on roads and also in fights with other cats. So, they can be injured, and they can also pick up a range of diseases from other cats. So, preventing a cat from roaming is a massive contribution to protecting our wildlife out there.

But de-sexing your cat so that we're not having unwanted litters out in the bush where we're just adding to the population of Australian feral cats. And if you're coming across a stray cat, especially in a place like Phillip Island where you might visit semi-regularly and have a cat that sort of hangs around that you might feed, you're much better off trying to take that cat in and look after it properly and prevent it from roaming. Get it desexed rather than just feeding it and letting it stay out there in the bush where they are at risk, no less than your domestic cat.

The other thing too if I can throw one more aspect in there. The other really important thing people can do is just respect the natural environment and understand that the people and, and our pets can have an incredible impact on the natural environment. So, if you're out in conservation zones, it's things as simple as just keeping an eye out for signs and messages that alert you to issues in an area that might be when you can and can't have a dog on a beach. Keep yourself on the walking tracks and don't stray off them where you might be impacting habitat. And if you've got a pet with you, keep it under close control. Because just, it's not only an animal that's running off and perhaps causing obvious damage, but just our very presence and the scent we leave can be enough to disturb wildlife. And then I guess the final thing is, is plenty of people say things like, "but you know, my, my dog's only small" well, it’s only small to us, but if you're a tiny beach-nesting bird, then a small dog is still a fairly large animal that's going to cause great disturbance, or potentially cause great disturbance. So, I guess it's just that understanding where you are and respecting that there are lots of other animals out there looking for their little piece of the world to live in can make a big difference if you can just be a bit more aware of your surroundings, I suppose.

Meagan

Yeah. That's some really great advice, Ash, and it's protecting wildlife and protecting your pets and enjoying your time with your pets and your time out in nature together. That's fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us Ash, and talking about your role as a pest vertebrate officer. Bye!

Ashley

No worries, you're most welcome.

Meagan

All right. So, we're getting into winter here on Phillip Island, and so Skye, what is our wildlife up to, what's going on?

Skye

All right. So, start of winter, the penguins are mostly off at sea at the moment. They're not going to be coming in as much because they've shifted into winter mode, essentially. So, in winter they don't have as much reason to come home, there are no eggs to feed... Eggs to feed! There are no eggs to sit on. There are no babies to feed or chicks to feed. So, they're spending longer and longer out at sea. And our penguins can spend up to a good four weeks out at sea without touching land. So, some of them are doing that particularly starting around now.

Seals. So, the seal pups that have been growing and developing, they've now moulted and they're starting to practice their fishing. So, they're starting to head out into the ocean. They're starting to chase their fish. And around this time what we start to find is more entanglements because unfortunately, these playful pups see a bit of rubbish in the water, they want to play with it, and then they get themselves caught in it. So that's something we're seeing around about now. And also, yes, we're pretty much just now getting into the start of the whale season. So yeah, I'm keeping my eyes peeled for some lovely whales out in the distance when I drive by the ocean.

Meagan

What type of whales do we see around here Skye?

Skye

We see some Southern Right Whales. Occasionally we get an Orca and Humpbacks as well, isn't it?

Meagan

Oh yeah. Lots of humpbacks.

Skye

Yeah. So that's what we're looking out for at the moment at, at the very start of winter.

Meagan

So, Skye, last week, I challenged you to go out and see our conservation dogs in action. How did you go?

Skye

Look, it was probably just about the cutest challenge ever, such a tough ask being asked to go out and play with dogs. So, let's have a listen and see how I went.

Hi, everybody, Skye here, and today I'm out with Craig and our feral cat detection, dogs Millie and Marbee, and we're going to be doing some feral cat detecting exercises.

Craig

Good morning, it's Craig. I work with the pest animal section with the Nature Park. But my major role is training and handling the detection dogs, the fox dogs, and the feral cat dogs.

Skye

And why is it important to detect feral cats?

Craig

Yeah, we need to find the feral cats here on Phillip Island, cause they're a problem with all our native wildlife, and penguins and shearwaters are in that as well. And also, with cats, they transfer diseases as well like toxoplasmosis which is a real issue for farmers and wildlife as well. So today we'll be focusing on the feral cat detection dogs, Marbee and Millie, so we'll start off with some scats laid out for them to find as well as a cat skin drag for them to track.

Skye

We use detection dogs as monitoring tools, they indicate areas of feral and pest activity to us. So, in this case, Marbee and Millie will indicate feral cat hotspots so we know the areas in which we should focus our control programs. So, what Craig's doing right now is he's hidden some feral cat poo, and he's creating a path of the scents and smells that a feral cat might leave so that Millie has something to detect. And Millie's sense of smell is just incredible.

Craig

How good their smell is like us, we can taste one teaspoon of sugar in a coffee, but, but they can indicate and smell a teaspoon of fluoride in two Olympic pools. So that's the difference.

Skye

Wow. Yeah. Yeah. So, they're good at this job.

Craig

Yeah, they're very good. Heaps better than us!

Skye

And now we're going to get the dogs out and see if they can follow the scent.

Millie here is a German Hunting Terrier, otherwise known as a Yarg, Craig tells me, and she's just waiting for the signal, and she'll start following the scent we've left her and trying to find the feral cat poo that we've hidden.

So, Millie's picked up the scent of a cat, and after this tree she should turn left if she's following it correctly. Yes, she has turned left, she's following it correctly. She lost the scent for a moment that she is back on track now.

Craig

Bark! Bark! Good.

Skye

Craig is training Millie to bark to indicate the feral cat scent.

Craig

Bark! Bark! Good girl!

Skye

Now she's getting a reward.

Craig

They just love their job, that's what I like about them, the dogs. They just love going to work in the morning you let them out and they're flying in and they're wanting to go.

Skye

So, you've got a tough job playing with dogs all day.

Craig

Yeah, I get that all the time! No, it's good, and it is so rewarding. I've been training dogs for probably 40 years now.

Skye

It has been so much fun coming out and meeting the dogs, meeting Craig, and learning a little bit more about our conservation programs for feral and pest animals. Bye, everyone.

Meagan

Wow.

Skye

Yeah, it was pretty fun. It was hard because of course they're working dogs, so you're not allowed to pat them, you're not allowed to love them, you're not allowed to boop their noses. So cute.

Meagan

And what good employees?

Skye

Yeah. Well, colleagues, you can say.

Meagan

They never rock up late, never rock up with a hangover.

Skye

Yeah. Oh, Marbee and Millie. What a lovely morning I had. Thanks for that challenge, Meagan. And if you'd like to see how cute these little conservation dogs are, you can head to our social media pages where you will be able to find a little video of my day out with the dogs.

Meagan

Yeah. If you want to see the work going into feral pest management here on Phillip Island you see it from the moment you cross the bridge because there is a camera up there. Have you seen that, Skye?

Skye

Is that not a speed camera?

Meagan

No not a speed camera. Don't speed, but that is a fox detection camera. So that's up there so if a fox crosses a bridge, we'll know about it. So, you see that as you drive on and then a place, I would really recommend going is Scenic Estate Reserve, which not many people know about. It was actually an area sold for housing development, and now it's been rehabilitated. It's a bit of a collaborative project between the Shire, the Nature Parks, Parks Victoria, and the government, which I think perfectly demonstrates the importance of collaboration and cooperation that's required to kind of tackle the threat of pest management.

Skye

Yeah, because it is a big issue that spans across everywhere. They don't just stay within their little areas, do they.

Meagan

They don't just get to a fence and stop. So that collaboration is really important. And that's what you can really see at Scenic Estate Reserve. It's a beautiful place to have a picnic. You can look out over our Marine National Park, out over the wetlands at Westernport, and if you look to the west, you can kind of actually look out to the spot where the last fox who was nicknamed the Phantom, because he was really hard to catch. That's where he was found by those fox detection dogs and he was removed yeah, a little, little bit of history in that, that kind of area. And after you've had lunch, I would highly recommend going to Churchill Island. It's a working heritage farm, so you can go and watch the farm demonstrations there and then explore the island. And it's a really incredible island because it is fox, cat, and rabbit-free. So, you can go there, and you can see how wildlife is bouncing back on an island that is pest-free. It's amazing.

Skye

Yeah. So, they've essentially on Churchill Island, we've accomplished what we're trying to accomplish for Phillip Island.

Meagan

Exactly.

Skye

Yeah. And I guess Churchill Island's a lot smaller than Phillip Island, but you know, we're working on it on Phillip Island. Aren't we?

Meagan

And it's a good kind of demonstration of what we could have here.

Skye

Yeah, I can't wait till we are completely pest-free.

Meagan

Yep. That's the goal.

Skye

That's the dream. Okay. It is joke time here on Nature Unfiltered. Now we're of course telling jokes about our theme, which is pest and feral animals. Really easy to find jokes about this topic. Don't you reckon Meagan?

Meagan

Oh, look, I didn't have a problem.

Skye

I did as you'll probably hear, but let's, let's hear your jokes first. Let's go.

Meagan

Okay. Why were the foxes hunting rabbits?

Skye

Why were the foxes hunting rabbits?

Meagan

Because they were in the mood for fast food.

All right. Let's see you do better.

Skye

Yeah, look, I haven't done better, but here we go. Okay. It's, it's more of a statement than a question and answer. The average fox can jump higher than a house. Did you know that?

Meagan

No.

Skye

Yeah. Well, this is in part due to their powerful hind legs, but mainly because houses can't jump.

Meagan

Nice one. All right. Okay. One more. What do you call 100 rabbits walking backwards?

Skye

Ooh. What do you call a hundred rabbits walking backwards?

Meagan

A receding hairline.

Skye

That's actually funny! We got a funny joke.

Meagan

It doesn't happen very often.

Skye

All righty, Meagan, it's probably one of my favourite segments here on Nature Unfiltered. It is time for "Guess That Noise”. All right. And I'm making you guess that noise today. So, look, get yourself into the zone, and see if you can guess this noise. (Meow noises and a little bell rings)

So, what noise do you think this is?

Meagan

Is it a cat? With a little bell.

Skye

Yes, it is cats with a little bell!

Meagan

Okay. That's look, that's pretty cute.

Skye

That's pretty cute because I guess they are... that was a very small little cat by the sound of it. Now. It's very cute when they're responsibly being kept inside the house and not feral cats, aren't they?

Meagan

Yeah, that's what we want to see.

Skye

That's what we want.

Meagan

Is there another one?

Skye

Yep. Next noise. You're ready for this.

(Screaming noise)

Meagan

Oh. That scared me. That someone being attacked by a fox and then screaming.

Skye

Almost.

Meagan

Was it a Fox?

Skye

It was a Fox. Isn't it creepy!

Meagan

Terrifying

Skye

Yeah, so for a while I lived in England, and I once thought I heard a lady getting attacked nearby, and I almost called the police. But then I realized that this lady was screaming at the exact same pitch and frequency and volume every single time in quite regular intervals. And I went, "hang on, that's a bit strange." And then I talked to some people and yes, it's a fox. How weird is that?

Meagan

That would freak me out.

Skye

Yeah, it was really weird. All right. Last one. Here we go.

(Scratching noise)

What do you reckon?

Meagan

It's like something scratching or like grating cheese. Is it like a mouse eating cheese?

Skye

It's a rabbit munching.

Meagan

Oh!

Skye

Having a little munch.

Meagan

What's he munching on?

Skye

In this video he's munching on a carrot, but our feral rabbits, of course, wouldn't be munching on a carrot. They'd just be munching on grass and vegetation.

Meagan

Unless they get in your veggie garden.

Skye

Yeah, that's true.

Meagan

So that's it for our episode on feral and pest animals. Thanks for listening.

Skye

And next time we are going to be talking about a really special moment in Phillip Island Nature Parks history. We're going to be talking about the Summerland buyback.

Meagan

So that's a buyback of an entire housing estate for the conservation of penguins.

Skye

So, we're really going to be talking about penguins. We're going to be talking about how we've protected them for the last 40 years and how we are making sure that they are protected into the future. So, you're definitely going to want to have a listen.

Meagan

Everyone loves penguins.

Skye

How can you not love penguins? And of course, we need to issue a challenge and next time, it is going to be Jordan. Jordan's going to be doing the challenge. And my challenge for Jordan is I would like her to build a little penguin house. How cute is that?

Meagan

That's so cute.

Skye

So sometimes what we do here at Nature Parks is that where other things have been, so where the houses were on the Summerland Peninsula that we've now taken away, we want to encourage the penguins to move back in. So, we build them little houses and we put them out there so it's nice and easy for them. So, yeah, I would like Jordan to build one of those little penguin houses to go out onto the Summerland Peninsula.

Meagan

Great. I'm looking forward to seeing Jordan's carpentry skills. For those of you at home, something that we challenge you to do to help reduce the impact of feral and pest animals is to try and be a responsible pet owner. So, if you have a pet cat, try and keep your pet contained, keep it confined to your property, keep it indoors at night, make sure your animals are de-sexed. And if you're walking your dog, make sure you're aware of the restrictions. So, keep your dog on lead where you need to, to help protect our beautiful wildlife.

Skye

That's our challenge for you. All right. Thanks for tuning in everybody. We'll see you next time.

Meagan

Thank you. Bye

Skye, what's a rabbit's favourite music?

Skye

What's a rabbit's favourite music?

Meagan

Hip hop. What is a fox's favourite dance?

Skye

Foxtrot!

Meagan

Yes!