One of the many difficulties faced by the pioneers of Australia’s sheep industry was finding a reliable shepherd. Among the convict labour available, for every two experienced farm labourers there were five convicted sheep, horse, cattle or poultry thieves.
The conditions were demanding. Convicts returning from pasture with fewer sheep than they left with faced a penalty of up to 100 lashes – close to a death sentence. Going bush was the only option for those unwilling to submit to the punishment back “inside”, as the settlements were called. Sheep were lost through negligence and misadventure, others to hungry dingoes.
Eradicating dingoes therefore had a double benefit for the graziers: they would reduce stock losses, and eliminate the need for (unreliable) convict labour.
Reverend Samuel Marsden announced the first plan for the destruction of the native dog in Sydney Town, 1811. On offer was a generous bounty of one gallon of spirits for each complete skin of a fully grown native dog.
(Incidentally, Marsden went on to introduce sheep to New Zealand, followed by the mysterious disappearance of the Maori kuri dog in following decades.)
Three years later, the first instance of using poison to eradicate the dingo was recorded in the Sydney Gazette. A “gentleman farmer” with extensive stock in the Nepean District initiated the operation. By applying arsenic to the body of a dead ox on his property, he managed to eradicate all the wild dogs from his landholding. The technique gathered a quiet following, though there were concerns that in the wrong hands this venture could inadvertently backfire on the penal colony.
In 1818 French scientist Pierre Joseph Pelletier successfully extracted beautiful but sinister crystals from the plant nux vomica. This discovery revolutionised toxicology: it enabled mass production of a highly toxic, stable and cheap poison known as strychnine.
The crystals were soon to be exported en masse around the world. Strychinine became an essential item in the Australian farmer’s toolkit, and by 1852 its use on landholdings was mandatory to control unwanted wildlife. In 1871 author Anthony Trollope wrote in his observations of Australian life:
On many large runs, carts are continually being taken round with (strychnine) baits to be set on the paths of the dingo. In smaller establishments the squatter or his head-man goes about with strychnine in his pocket and lumps of meat tied up in a handkerchief.
Over the course of the 19th century, the Australian economy became irreversibly dependent on this industrial agrochemical farming system.
The pace of Australia’s agricultural revolution was rapid; between 1822, when fine wool became NSW’s major export product, and 1850, the national flock numbers increased from 120,000 to 16 million. By 1892 the Australian sheep flock numbered 106 million.
A central Australian dingo extermination campaign was launched in 1897, to eradicate dingo and rabbit populations from South Australia’s arid zone. Described as the “Party of Poisoners”, the team travelled from Gawler Range to Wilpena Pound, covering an area 1,000km long by 480km wide. It took five months.
The poisoners dispensed phosphorised pollard and strychnine sticks and laid poisoned grain in lightly covered furrows. Meat baits were placed around the bases of the red and white mallee bush. Billabongs were poisoned. All species that might have competed for the scarce resources were effectively eliminated – carnivore and herbivore. Farming ultimately failed in the region. The natural biodiversity never recovered.
The legacy of Australia’s chemical-dependent farming over the past 200 years remains largely unacknowledged in conversations about the current biodiversity crisis. Australia has around 500 threatened animal species, and our rate of mammalian extinctions is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The main drivers of the crisis are attributed to introduced species, changed fire regimes, and land clearing.
In the history of agricultural expansion, it was the dingo that was the initial target of eradication campaigns. Land clearing worked in concert with the broad scale application of vertebrate pesticides. The expansion in the application, range, methods of delivery and quantity of poison and poisoned baits applied was rapid, using increasingly sophisticated machinery.
The effects reverberated throughout Australia’s ecosystems: the removal of the dingo, the top order predator, lead to the explosion of herbivore populations, more poisons, the establishment of introduced species and destabilising of the native ecosystem.
In the 1870s newspapers were reporting on the impact of herbivore populations including the introduced rabbit. The South Australian Advertiser, wrote in 1877:
We have destroyed the balance of nature in two ways simultaneously, by destroying the carnivore and introducing a new herbivorous animal of immense reproductive powers.
In the 21st century, more vertebrate poisons are dispensed by air in National Parks, than on private land – in efforts to protect biodiversity from invasive species.
My research examines how poison has been normalised in land management. The use of vertebrate pesticides has been supported by services and systems embedded within Australia’s social, political and legal framework for 200 years.
Applying more vertebrate pesticides to the environment to try and solve the problem, is arguably an extreme case of mistaking the poison for the cure.
The Australian government’s target of killing 2 million feral cats by 2020 attracted significant public interest and media attention when it was unveiled in 2015.
But in our new research, published today in Conservation Letters, we explain why it has a shaky scientific foundation.
The target was developed for the Threatened Species Strategy. At the time of its launch in 2015, there was no reliable estimate of the size of Australia’s feral cat population. Figures of between 5 million and 18 million were quoted, but their origin is murky: it’s possible they came from a single estimate of feral cat density in Victoria, extrapolated across the continent.
A recent review estimated a much smaller population size — probably varying from 2 million to 6 million, depending on environmental conditions. Using this estimate, the proportion of Australia’s cat population to be killed under the government’s target is now likely in the range 32-95%, rather than 11-40% based on the original population estimate.
Targets for the removal of pest animals should consider how they will affect an animal’s current and future population size. But because a scientific justification for the 2 million target was never provided, it is unclear whether or how the revised estimate would alter the target.
Hitting the target, missing the point
For cat control to have a lasting effect on feral populations, it needs to be intense, sustained, and carried out over large areas. This is because cats can rapidly reproduce and re-invade areas. To benefit threatened species, cat control also needs to be undertaken in areas that contain — or could potentially contain — native species that are threatened by cats.
Research commissioned by the government conservatively estimated that around 211,500 feral cats were killed in 12 months in 2015–16 (ranging between around 135,500 and 287,600). This estimate was used to report that the first-year target to kill 150,000 cats was met with room to spare.
The benefit to threatened species of achieving this target is unclear, because we don’t know if the control efforts had a measurable effect on cat populations; whether they took place in areas that would benefit threatened species; or how (or if) the target and related activities contributed to the estimated 211,500 cat deaths.
Around 75% of the killed cats were attributed to shooting by farmers and hunters. It is questionable whether such approaches could keep pace with high rates of population growth and re-invasion from surrounding areas.
These and other issues were known before the target was set, leading experts to recommend that an overall cat culling target should not be set.
The focus on killing cats risks distracting attention from other threats to native wildlife. These threats include habitat loss, which has been largely overlooked in the Threatened Species Strategy.
Habitat loss is politically sensitive because its main driver is the clearing of land to make way for economic activities such as agriculture, urban development, and mining. The strategy mentions feral cats more than 70 times, but habitat loss is mentioned just twice and land clearing not at all. Australia has one of the world’s worst rates of land clearing, which has recently increased in some regions. For instance, clearing of native vegetation in New South Wales rose by 800% between 2013 and 2016.
A focus on feral cats is warranted, but not at the expense of tackling other conservation threats too. A comprehensive, integrated approach towards threatened species conservation is essential.
Despite its questionable scientific basis, it is possible that the ambitious nature of the 2 million target has raised the public profile of feral cats as a conservation issue. However, to our knowledge, there has been no attempt to measure the effectiveness of the target in raising awareness or changing attitudes, and so this remains a hypothetical proposition.
The Threatened Species Strategy has other targets that are more closely linked to conservation outcomes, such as the eradication of cats from five particular islands and the establishment of ten new fenced cat-free exclosures. Achieving these targets will make a small contribution to the culling target, but have a comparatively large benefit for some threatened species.
Australia’s target to kill 2 million feral cats is a highly visible symbol of a broader campaign, but the success of policies aimed at reducing the impacts of feral cats should focus squarely on the recovery of native species.
Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University; Dale Nimmo, Associate professor/ARC DECRA fellow, Charles Sturt University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Ricky Spencer, Associate Professor of Ecology, Western Sydney University
Over the weekend, Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority issued notices for a major recycling company to stop receiving waste at two of its sites.
While the full consequences of these notices are yet to be realised, in the short term this means at least one council will have to dump kerbside recycling in landfill.
This isn’t a new problem. It’s a result of China’s decision to stop accepting Australia’s recyclables, and a clear sign we’ve been playing catch-up but not focusing on sustainable solutions. We need to work out how to deal with recycling in Australia – and determine how much it will cost, and who will pay.
We’re missing a piece of the financial puzzle
Kerbside collections are of course funded by householders as part of their annual rates. After China stopped buying Australian recycling we saw the garbage component of rates rise, so the collection aspect of the costs seems to be addressed. But of course there are a range of materials that cannot be placed in kerbside bins, but can be recycled.
As reported recently in The Age, analysis by an environmental consultancy has found the prices consumers may have to pay to ensure there are systems in place to recycle a range of specific items. For example, it would cost A$16 to recycle a mattress. Given that my local landfill charges A$23 to dispose of a mattress, it seems to make economic sense to pay into a compulsory recycling scheme (and I would not have to transport the mattress to the landfill, which is another bonus).
However, the piece of the loop that is missing is the encouragement (by levies or incentives), for businesses to use more recycled materials in their products.
It does not make sense to collect and stockpile recyclable materials until commodity prices are high enough to justify sorting them. This habit makes us dependent on overseas markets and creates domestic issues.
Nor is it good to have a stop-start approach, in which recyclables are sorted properly when there is space, but sent to landfill when there is not (or have householders call the council fortnightly to see whether they should place their recycling bin out).
A recycling industry association has provided a ten-point plan for resolving what they consider the essential issues with recycling. This very positive list includes investing waste levy funds into recycling, providing incentives for companies to use more recycled material, and educating consumers and businesses on recycling issues.
Encouraging businesses to use more recycled material is crucial. Instead of just reporting how much of their waste is recycled rather than sent to landfill, all organisations should report on the percentage of materials they buy from recycled sources.
This would help consumers make better buying decisions, and give guidance for governments to target specific sectors or programs to increase the use of recyclables.
We need a “fresh eyes” approach to how we manage waste, focusing equally on the environmental, economic and social aspects of this issue. One barrier is the lack of a centralised approach by all three spheres of government. It doesn’t make sense for state or local governments to have to to manage this large-scale infrastructure issue in isolation.
The largest portion of responsibility for waste management lies with the generator, but that is not to say others may not have a level of involvement. We all have some responsibility for the waste we create in our own homes, and how we dispose of it. Besides recycling, that also means (where possible) avoiding and reducing trash, and buying items made with recyclables – this is called “closing of the loop”.
Some businesses have made significant efforts to reduce their dependence on virgin raw materials, and are using recycled material to either make or package their products. But we do not hear much about this.
Perhaps it is time for a scheme similar to the “Buy Australian” program or energy efficiency stars, which would enable consumers to readily identify the level of recycled material in a product. Currently it is very difficult to tell.
Retailers often say they’re driven by consumers in what they can provide, so why not use our supposed power to force improvements (and more importantly, reductions), in use of virgin materials?
The banning of plastic bags by supermarkets was consumer-driven – so now is the time to encourage companies to reduce their waste burden. Perhaps you can approach a retailer about excess packaging, or make sure you check the label to see if an item was made or packaged with recycled materials.
As we move towards a federal election we should also be asking what our political parties are proposing to do about our waste crisis. It’s time to ask local candidates about their sustainable plan for resolving Australia’s issues with recycling, waste management and reducing resource use.