Tandem virus cocktail kills pest rabbits more effectively



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Tagged European rabbit kitten infected with myxoma virus, but that died from rabbit haemorrhagic virus disease (RHDV).
Photo by David Peacock, Biosecurity South Australia, CC BY-NC-SA

Corey Bradshaw, Flinders University; Louise Barnett, Flinders University, and Thomas Prowse, University of Adelaide

Farmers, landowners and conservationists across Australia are benefiting from an unexpected, combined effect of two biological controls that target feral populations of European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), according to our research, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.




Read more:
Explainer: how ‘biocontrol’ fights invasive species


Pest rabbits cost the Australian economy over A$200 million each year in lost production, and millions more in pest control. They compete with livestock for food and cause enormous environmental damage.

Rabbits previously reached plague numbers in much of agricultural and outback Australia, until the introduction of two rabbit-specific viruses and insect vectors.

Myxoma virus was first introduced in 1950, followed by European rabbit fleas in the 1960s to help spread the virus, and then Spanish rabbit fleas in the 1990s to increase spread into arid areas.

Then, in 1995, rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) escaped from quarantine, before an official release in 1996. These biocontrols have reduced rabbit numbers by an estimated 75-80% (see references in our paper) in South Australia alone since the 1950s.

Rabbits around a waterhole at the myxomatosis trial enclosure on Wardang Island in 1938.
National Archives of Australia/Wikimedia Commons

Together, myxoma virus and RHDV saved the Australian economy an estimated A$70 billion by 2011.

But managing rabbits’ growing immunity to these virus biocontrol agents is now presenting new challenges for Australian land managers.




Read more:
Controlling rabbits: let’s not get addicted to viral solutions


This is why our new discovery of a positive interaction between the two main viruses is great news for the Australian environment and economy.

Our study represents the first solid evidence that a combination of these two rabbit diseases is more effective in reducing rabbits’ abundance, providing agencies and landowners with more bang for their buck during rabbit control programs.

Our findings were made possible by one of the longest-running monitoring programs in disease ecology: the 21-year (and ongoing) Turretfield Rabbit Research Project north of Adelaide.

Roughly every two months for more than two decades, PIRSA Biosecurity South Australia has counted, tagged, virus-tested, and released rabbits of all ages from the isolated sentinel rabbit population.

Analysing this unrivalled dataset, we discovered that the probability of dying from rabbit haemorrhagic disease was 10% higher than expected when an individual rabbit had previously been exposed to myxoma virus. These means that rabbits that are now immune to the myxoma virus (Australia’s first rabbit biocontrol) are nevertheless more susceptible to RHDV (Australia’s second rabbit biocontrol).

In other words, the two diseases (a poxvirus and a calicivirus) interacted to give a population-level effect that resulted in more rabbit deaths overall.

Such an interaction between biocontrol agents is rare; in fact, it is the first discovery of its kind in the world.

Tagged rabbit from Turretfield (photo taken September 8, 2014). This individual had no antibodies against RHDV or myxoma virus, but was found dead from haemorrhagic disease two hours later.
David Peacock/Biosecurity SA

The knowledge that the two viruses combine as a potent weapon against rabbits has major implications for land owners and farmers around the world who battle pest rabbits. Disease outbreaks could potentially be timed to ensure that the death rate of pest rabbits is as high as possible.

In Australia, rabbits are a dietary mainstay for two other damaging invasive species: feral cats and red foxes. A large rabbit population can keep the two predator species at high densities, thus promoting their high predation rates on native wildlife.




Read more:
Invasive predators are eating the world’s animals to extinction – and the worst is close to home


Keeping rabbit numbers low can therefore benefit our environment. In fact, the rate of native vegetation cover has increased since RHDV began to spread in 1995, and there have been documented increases in the numbers of small native mammal species since that time.

Ecologically informed biocontrol is therefore just another smart way to manage invasive species.

Our discovery also has implications right across the world. European rabbits cause environmental and agricultural damage in places as diverse as the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and in parts of South America.

The ConversationOur findings will also help researchers and conservationists to safeguard the rabbit in its natural range in Europe, and support Australia’s search for other biocontrols in the future.

Corey Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Fellow in Global Ecology, Flinders University; Louise Barnett, Adjunct researcher, Flinders University, and Thomas Prowse, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The future is fenced for Australian animals



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Mala, also known as rufous hare-wallabies, will be protected behind an enormous cat-proof fence.
Donald Hobern/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Michael Bode, The University of Queensland

Many of Australia’s mammals spend their entire lives imprisoned, glimpsing the outside world through tall chain-link fences and high-voltage wires. There are dozens of these enclosures across Australia. Many are remote, standing alone in the endless expanse of inland Australia, but others are on the outskirts of our largest cities – Melbourne, Perth, Canberra.

Every year there are more of them, the imprisoned population growing, while the wild populations outside dwindle. These are Australia’s conservation fences.




Read more:
Let’s move the world’s longest fence to settle the dingo debate


The captives within our conservation fences are adorable – floppy-eared bilbies, tiny hare-wallabies, long-tongued numbats – and they all share an extreme susceptibility to introduced predators. At least 68 native mammal species cannot exist in the wild if either foxes or cats are present. Many of these species once numbered in the millions, ranging from the woodlands of Queensland to the deserts of Western Australia, but predation has driven them to the brink of extinction.

Fences offer these species a future in the wild, and conservation groups have risen to the challenge. Last week, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy completed a new cat-proof fence in their Newhaven Sanctuary, the largest conservation fence ever constructed.

Fences are extraordinarily successful

Make no mistake, these conservation fences work. Species that wilt at the sight of a fox, that have been exterminated from every corner of the Australian mainland, will explode in numbers behind fences. Along with offshore islands, inside these fences are the only places in Australia where these species can prosper – a few hundred square kilometres of safety, surrounded by 7.6 million lethal square kilometres.

Environmentalists have never particularly liked fences. Rather than hide behind walls, they repeatedly took the fight to the cats and foxes on the outside.

Their tactics have been diverse, innovative and brutal. Managers have rained bullets from helicopters and poison baits from planes. They have set cunning snares and traps, mimicked the smell and sound of their enemies, and have turned landscapes to ash with wildfire.

Nothing has worked for the most threatened marsupials. Some of the largest and most expensive management campaigns in Australian conservation history have ended in exhaustion and stalemate, and with a retreat back behind the fences.

Fences were once a source of vehement debate in conservation circles. Should they be permanent? Are fenced populations wild or captive? Should they contribute to species’ conservation status?

These arguments have effectively been abandoned. Scientific studies and painful experience has proven fences and offshore islands to be the only reliable method of protecting predator-threatened species http://www.wildliferesearchmanagement.com.au/Final%20Report_0609.pdf. In place of these debates, conservation organisations and governments have turned to more practical questions of fence height, electric wire voltage and skirt depth.

So now, on average, Australians are building a new fence every year, some of them truly enormous. The just-completed fence at Newhaven encloses a staggering 10,000 hectares of red sand and spinifex. By the time the project is complete, this fence will be home to 11 different threatened mammal species.

And Australia is not alone: around the world, from New Zealand to Hawaii to South Africa, an archipelago of fences is emerging from an ocean of predators. It is one of the great achievements of modern conservation and has already averted the extinction of critically endangered species. Although it’s much smaller than our network of protected areas, it offers refuge to species that are long-gone from our national parks and wilderness areas.

Red foxes have been extraordinarily successful in Australia.
Harley Kingston/Flickr, CC BY

A troubling pattern

However, in recent years a concerning pattern has begun to emerge. While the number and size of fences continue to increase, the number of new species being protected has stalled. In fact, the last five fences haven’t included any new species – they have only offered additional protection to species that were already protected behind existing fences https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-017-0456-4.

As an example, the first two marsupials planned for introduction behind the Newhaven fence will be the mala (Lagorchestes hirsutus) and the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur). These two species undeniably deserve more protection. Both are highly susceptible to foxes and cats and will derive tremendous benefit from the protection of this enormous fence. However, both species are already found elsewhere behind fences (four different fences for burrowing bettongs). Meanwhile, yet-to-be-published research from the National Environmental Science Program has found 41 other species that are desperately vulnerable to introduced predators are not protected by any fence.

This problem is not new to conservation. In the 1990s, Australian researchers suddenly realised that our national park system was failing to protect the full range of Australian ecosystems. Despite our best efforts, we had created a system of reserves that was biased towards mountainous landscapes and deserts, and away from the fertile valley floors. The solution was to create new national parks using systematic and mathematical methods.

This discovery – the theory of systematic conservation planning – revolutionised global conservation. In 2018, conservation fences need their own systematic revolution.

Unfortunately, the national park system had natural advantages that fences lack. The vast majority of Australia’s protected areas belong to the state and federal governments. The centralised nature of the protected area network is perfect for systematic thinking and top-down optimisation – picture the Soviet Union’s Politburo. In contrast, the conservation fencing sector is diverse and decentralised – picture the third day of Woodstock.




Read more:
All cost, little benefit: WA’s barrier fence is bad news for biodiversity



Fences are built by governments at the state, federal and municipal levels, by multimillion-dollar NGOs like the Australia Wildlife Conservancy, by tiny local environmentalist groups and by profit-making corporations. This diversity is a fundamental strength of the fence network, giving it access to a spectrum of funding and ideas. But it makes it almost impossible to plan in a systematic manner. You can’t tell a small bilby conservation group in western Queensland that they should protect the central Australian rock-rat instead (Zyzomys pedunculatus). It doesn’t necessarily matter to them that bilbies are already protected behind four different fences and the rock-rat has none.

While conservation science tries to work this problem out, new and larger fences will continue to be built at an accelerating rate into the foreseeable future. True, the absence of coordination will make mathematicians break their slide rules, but each fence will do its job. The furry denizens will hop, and scurry, and bounce around, heedless of their precarious safety.

The ConversationAnd for us, from the outside looking in, these fences will help us forget the parlous state of Australian marsupial conservation. It will be possible to forget our record-breaking rate of extinctions, to forget the empty forests and deserts, and to imagine what a bushwalk might have been like before Europeans unleashed foxes and cats onto Australia.

Michael Bode, Associate Professor of Mathematics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

South Africa should sort out the bad from the really bad on its invasive species list



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Managing trout is a contentious issue with conflicting views about whether they pose a risk, or are beneficial.
Shutterstock

Tsungai Zengeya, South African National Biodiversity Institute

This article is the third in a series The Conversation Africa is running on invasive species.

Alien species have been introduced to Africa for a variety of reasons. They provide food, raw materials for industry, ornamental plants, recreation in the form of sport fishing, hunting and pets. Some that are highly valued have been moved around widely. And in some areas they now form prominent components of societies and ecosystems like the domestic cat for example.

Many alien species bring considerable benefits. But some have become invasive, causing a loss of biodiversity, changes to ecosystems, economic losses and, in some cases, even affecting people’s health.

The shrub Prosopis or mesquite is an example. It was introduced to South Africa to provide fodder, firewood and shade in arid parts of the country. But it’s also a major water user. And two trout species (S. trutta and O. mykiss) are used for recreational angling and commercial aquaculture. But they’ve also been implicated in having a negative effect on the environment.

Managing invasive species is therefore critical. In South Africa the movement and use of 552 listed invasive species are managed under the Biodiversity Act and regulations attached to it. But not all the species on the list are equally harmful. Several may in fact be relatively harmless.

All the listed species under these regulations require management. Given that the capacity is limited, regulations should arguably focus on priority species because not all are necessarily harmful to the extent that would justify spending large amounts of time and effort on keeping them under control.

The question then is: are there some species that could be removed from the list? In our recent study we set out to answer this question by classifying species as inconsequential, beneficial, destructive or conflict generating species. This was done by assessing the relative degree of benefit they brought and their negative effects.

Beneficial and harmful species

The classification was done by using a simple scoring system. It had two categories for the negatives (ecological and socio-economic) and two for the benefits (economic and intrinsic).

  1. Inconsequential species: these make up 55% of the species listed under the act and in the regulations. They were associated with relatively low costs and low benefits to society. Species in this group had limited distribution or no known impact and were largely introduced as ornamentals or pets. Some examples include the eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), European perch (Perca fluviatilis), and the Père David’s Deer (Elaphurus davidianus).

  2. Destructive species: these make up 29% of the list. They don’t bring substantial benefits to society or the environment, but they have a highly negative impact. Many were introduced accidentally and are regarded largely as pests and weeds. Examples include invasive rodents like the black rat (Rattus rattus) which causes damage to infrastructure and transmission of zoonotic diseases and pitch canker (Fusarium circinatum) a growing threat to pine plantations and forests worldwide.

The jacaranda is an iconic tree species in the city of Pretoria where it’s regarded as part of the identity.
Shutterstock
  1. Beneficial species: they make up 10% of the list and have clear social or environmental benefits. For example the jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) is an iconic tree species in the city of Pretoria where the species is regarded as part of the identity and “sense of place” of the city. Active management is not necessary or should only be done in particular cases.

  2. Conflict-generating organisms: these can be either beneficial or destructive, depending on one’s perspective or what value is placed on them. They make up only 6% of the list. There’s huge disagreement about whether these species should be controlled, or how they should be controlled. Examples include woody plants introduced for forestry, erosion control, sand dune stabilisation, agriculture and as ornamentals. Acacias and pines are examples. Animal examples include species like the Himalayan tahr which was introduced to the Table Mountain National Park. The goat has been the focus of eradication attempts, despite strong opposition. It also includes species introduced for aquaculture like maroon and brown trout. Managing trout has been highly contentious with conflicting views about whether they pose a risk, or deliver a benefit. This has led to them being listed and delisted. The trout fraternity refuse to acknowledge that trout are invasive species and highlight the lack of scientific evidence of the risks they pose.

Finding common ground

We need to keep sight of the fact that there is general agreement on 94% of listed species. By identifying the small number that are generating the greatest tension, it’s more likely discussions can be held to reach common ground on regulation.

Most countries in Africa don’t have invasive species regulations. But there’s growing recognition that they’re needed. South Africa offers useful lessons on how this could be done.

The control of species listed under the country’s biodiversity act is compulsory. This means that plans to manage them have to be drawn up and implemented. But this doesn’t seem sensible given that not all are equally harmful and resources are limited. Our study suggests that some of the species currently regulated could be removed from the list.

Countries wanting to set up a system of managing invasive species could start by classifying a prospective list of candidates. Policymakers could then quickly bring out legislation against the most damaging and destructive ones. At the same time, discussions could be had on the ones that generate conflict with the aim of reaching consensus.

The ConversationThis would allow managers and regulators to focus on the most destructive species – as well as those that are at the centre of fierce disagreement.

Tsungai Zengeya, Researcher at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, South African National Biodiversity Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Alien animals and plants are on the rise in Africa, exacting a growing toll



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The larger grain borer beetle attacks crops like maize and cassava, threatening food security.
Shutterstock

Katelyn Faulkner, University of Pretoria; Brett Hurley, University of Pretoria, and Mark Robertson, University of Pretoria

This article is the first in a series The Conversation Africa is running on invasive species.

Let’s say you’re travelling from Uganda to South Africa for business. You finally arrive at your hotel after a long day and decide to change before dinner. You unlock and unzip your luggage, but there’s something in your bag that you didn’t pack. As you reach for a clean shirt, a moth flies out. Did that come with you all the way from Uganda? It’ll be fine, right? Surely, something so small won’t cause any harm.

Species are intentionally or accidentally transported by humans between continents to regions where they are not native. With the help of humans or by natural means like flight, these alien species can also spread within continents.

Their spread within continents can be rapid, affecting both the ecology as well as societies and the economy. Unfortunately, it’s really challenging to prevent species from spreading. Given the vast amount of people and goods that are transported between and around continents they can easily be moved across oceans as well as between countries.

The spread of alien species within Africa is increasing. Since 2000 more alien insect pests of eucalyptus trees have spread to other African countries from South Africa, than have been introduced to these African countries from other continents. To manage the spread of these alien species countries need to co-operate, communicate and share information and skills..

The spread of alien species

Many alien plants and animals have been introduced to Africa from other regions and then have spread from country to country, often having devastating effects.

Take the larger grain borer beetle, (Prostephanus truncatus) which is thought to have arrived on the continent in imported grain from Mexico and central America. The beetle was introduced to Tanzania before 1984, Togo before 1981 and Guinea before 1987. It then spread across the continent and within 20 years could be found further south in South Africa.

The beetle attacks crops such as maize and cassava, threatening food security and the livelihoods of the poor. Infestations often destroy maize that’s been stored by farmers, forcing them to buy maize as well as lose income they could have earned from selling any excess.

But alien species don’t just arrive from abroad. Many that are native to parts of Africa have also spread to countries on the continent where they are not native.

An example is the fish commonly known as the Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) which is native to rivers on the east coast of southern Africa. Fishermen have transported the Mozambique tilapia to other areas and it is now found in river systems in southern and western South Africa and Namibia.

The Mozambique tilapia is a popular species for fishing but it can pose a threat to native fish and has been responsible for the disappearance of native species in some regions.

The spread of alien species within Africa is by no means a new thing. For instance, the bur clover (Medicago polymorpha), a plant from northern Africa, might have been accidentally transported by humans to South Africa as early as 760 AD.

A high and increasing threat

Recently a number of alien species have spread extremely rapidly across the continent, posing a particularly high threat to food security and livelihoods.

The fall armyworm, native to the Americas, was first recorded in west and central Africa in early 2016 and then in South Africa in January 2017.
Shutterstock

One is a caterpillar known as the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda). The species, native to the Americas, was first recorded in west and central Africa in early 2016 and then in South Africa in January 2017.

The moths of the armyworm are strong fliers and the species may have spread through flight to South Africa from other African countries. Although the species attacks a wide range of crops, it poses a particularly serious threat to grain farmers. It is extremely difficult to manage.

Another example is a wasp known as the bluegum chalcid (Leptocybe invasa), which is native to Australia. In 2000 it was detected in Israel and shortly afterwards it was reported in Uganda and Kenya. From there it spread rapidly to many African countries including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Tanzania and was finally detected in South Africa in 2007. The insect probably reached Israel on live plant material and spread into Africa the same way, or was carried by people travelling between countries.

The wasp causes swelling or growths on eucalyptus trees, which can lead to decreased growth and tree death. As eucalyptus trees are an important source of income and fuel, this species could have an impact on the livelihoods of locals in these countries.

Preventing the introduction and spread

Once a species is introduced to one African country it’s highly likely it will spread to others on the continent because borders checks are weak.

The introduction and spread of species could be reduced if countries introduced biosecurity systems. These are used extensively in countries like Australia and New Zealand and involve using technology to check for alien species when people and goods enter a country. In Australia this involves inspecting goods, vehicles and luggage before they enter the country.

But even these systems aren’t a guarantee that species won’t spread. African countries would need to work together and share information and skills. This would also allow countries to prepare for the arrival of species, and to draw up plans to reduce their impact.

The ConversationThis is a tall order. But as a country’s defence against alien species introductions is only as strong as that of its neighbours, such action would benefit all of the countries involved.

Katelyn Faulkner, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Pretoria; Brett Hurley, Senior Lecturer Zoology and Entomology, University of Pretoria, and Mark Robertson, Associate Professor Zoology & Entomology, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five reasons not to spray the bugs in your garden this summer



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play4smee/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Lizzy Lowe, Macquarie University; Cameron Webb, University of Sydney, and Kate Umbers, Western Sydney University

The weather is getting warmer, and gardens are coming alive with bees, flies, butterflies, dragonflies, praying mantises, beetles, millipedes, centipedes, and spiders.

For some of us it is exciting to see these strange and wonderful creatures return. For others, it’s a sign to contact the local pest control company or go to the supermarket to stock up on sprays.

But while some bugs do us very few favours – like mozzies, snails and cockroaches – killing all insects and bugs isn’t always necessary or effective. It can also damage ecosystems and our own health.


Read more: The hidden secrets of insect poop


There are times when insecticides are needed (especially when pest populations are surging or the risk of disease is high) but you don’t have to reach for the spray every time. Here are five good reasons to avoid pesticides wherever possible, and live and let live.

1. Encourage the bees and butterflies, enjoy more fruits and flowers

Hover fly.
dakluza/flickr

Flowers and fruits are the focal points of even the smallest gardens, and many of our favourites rely on visits from insect pollinators. We all know about the benefits of European honey bees (Apis mellifera), but how about our “home grown” pollinators – our native bees, hover flies, beetles, moths and butterflies. All these species contribute to the pollination of our native plants and fruits and veggies.


Read more: The common herb that could bring bees buzzing to your garden


You can encourage these helpful pollinators by growing plants that flower at different times of the year (especially natives) and looking into sugar-water feeders or insect hotels.

2. Delight your decomposers, they’re like mini bulldozers

Slaters improve your soil quality.
Alan Kwok

To break down leaf litter and other organic waste you need decomposers. Worms, beetles and slaters will munch through decaying vegetation, releasing nutrients into the soil that can be used by plants.

The problem is that urban soils are frequently disturbed and can contain high levels of heavy metals that affects decomposer communities. If there are fewer “bugs” in the soil, decomposition is slower – so we need to conserve our underground allies.

You can help them out with compost heaps and worm farms that can be dug into the ground. It’s also good to keep some areas of your lawn un-mowed, and to create areas of leaf litter. Keeping your garden well-watered will also help your underground ecosystems, but be mindful of water restrictions and encouraging mosquitoes.

3. An army of beneficial bugs can eat your pests

Mantises and dragonflies are just some of the hundreds of fascinating and beautiful bugs we are lucky to see around our homes. Many of these wonderful creatures are predators of mozzies, house flies and cockroaches, yet people are using broad-spectrum insecticides which kill these beneficial bugs alongside the pests.

It may sound counterproductive to stop using pesticides in order to control pests around the home, but that’s exactly what organic farmers do. By reducing pesticides you allow populations of natural enemies to thrive.


Read more: Even ‘environmentally protective’ levels of pesticide devastate insect biodiversity


Many farmers grow specific plants to encourage beneficial insects, which has been shown to reduce the damage to their crops.

This form of pest control in growing in popularity because spraying can result in insecticide resistance. Fortunately, it’s easy to encourage these bugs: they go where their prey is. If you have a good range of insects in your yard, these helpful predators are probably also present.

Jumping spiders are great at eating flies and other pests.
Craig Franke

4. Your garden will support more wildlife, both big and small

Spraying with broad-spectrum pesticides will kill off more than just insects and spiders – you’re also going after the animals that eat them. The more insects are around, the more birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs will thrive in your backyard.


Read more: Four unusual Australian animals to spot in your garden before summer is out


Baiting for snails, for example, will deter the blue-tongue lizards that eat them, so cage your vegetables to protect them instead. Keeping your garden well-watered, and including waterbaths, will also encourage a balanced ecosystem (but change the waterbaths regularly).

5. You and your family be happier and healthier

Engaging with nature increases well-being and stimulates learning in children. Insects are a fantastic way to engage with nature, and where better to do this than in your own back yard! Observing and experimenting on insects is a wonderful teaching tool for everything from life cycles to the scientific method. It will also teach your kids to value nature and live sustainably.

It’s also a hard truth that domestic pesticides present a significant risk of poisoning, especially for small children.

In reality, the risk of exposing your children to the pesticides far outweighs the nuisance of having a few bugs around. Instead, integrated pest management, which combines non-chemical techniques like cleaning of food residues, removal of potential nutrients, and sealing cracks and crevices, is safer for your family and your garden ecosystems.

Think globally, act locally

Your backyard has a surprising impact on the broader health of your neighbourhood, and gardens can make significant contributions to local biodiversity. Insects are an important part of ecosystem conservation, and encouraging them will improve the health of your local environment (and probably your health and well-being too).


Read more: Conservation efforts must include small animals. After all, they run the world


The ConversationIn the end, insects and spiders are not out to get you. For the sake of our kids and our environment, you should give them a chance.

Lizzy Lowe, Postdoctoral researcher, Macquarie University; Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney, and Kate Umbers, Lecturer in Zoology, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday essay: the cultural meanings of wild horses



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Wild horses, known as brumbies, in Australia.
Shutterstock.com

Michael Adams, University of Wollongong

I am walking quietly through the forest. As I reach the edge of the trees there is a snort and a staccato of hoofbeats, and four horses materialise only metres in front of me: a foal, two mares and a dark stallion. The stallion, ears pricked, tosses his head and prances forward. As I crouch to pick up a branch, the stallion wheels and gallops off with the group. They hurdle an old stock fence, and almost as soon as their hoofs touch down, another big grey stallion comes towards them over the hill.

The next minutes are completely mesmerising. The two stallions fight, 50 metres from me. Dust hangs in the air around them, their screams echo off the hills, the impact of their hoof strikes reverberates in my belly. They rear, scream; snake heads out to bite, whirl and kick. Eventually, bleeding and bruised, the dark stallion breaks and runs. The grey makes a show of chasing, then canters back to the mares, arching his neck, prancing with lifted tail.

This is one of many times I have seen horses, called brumbies in Australia, in the mountains. While cross-country skiing in the south I have watched them in the snow – ragged manes flying, galloping through a mist of ice crystals – and many times while driving and bushwalking in both the north and south of Kosciuszko National Park. I have also watched them cantering in clouds of dust in central Australia, and grazing in the swamps of Kakadu. Each of these wild horse encounters has been deeply visceral and emotional, elemental expressions of life in dramatic and beautiful landscapes.

Horses are large, powerful and charismatic animals, and humans have ancient connections to them. Wild horses are dominant among the 13 species painted on the caves of Chauvet in France 30,000 years ago, and while there continues to be debate, archaeologists suggest evidence for horse domestication is at least 5,500 years old. And like the oldest human-animal relationship outside hunting – with dogs – the horse relationship is unique because we now mostly do not eat this animal.

Like dogs, horses now occur on every continent except Antarctica, and humans have been the primary agent for their dispersal. In North America, where the first true horses evolved and then died out, they were reintroduced by Columbus in 1493. Horses are the most recent of the main species humans domesticated, and the least different (with cats) from their wild counterparts.

Horses and other animals on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, from 30,000 years ago.
Claude Valette/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Australia has the largest wild horse herd in the world, maybe 400,000 or more horses, spread across nearly every bioregion from the tropical north to the arid centre to the alpine areas. That sounds like a dramatically large number, but Australia also has around one million domestic horses, about 100 million cattle and sheep, maybe 20 million feral pigs and 25 million kangaroos. But the presence of wild horses here is deeply controversial.

Six thousand of these horses are in Kosciuszko National Park. Ongoing controversy around these wild horses encompasses debate about their impact and their cultural meaning. There is very little systematic research and a large amount of emotive and anecdotal argument, from both sides. There is circularity and self-referencing in government wild horse management plans, very little reference to studies from Australia and almost no peer-reviewed research on horse impacts in the Snowy Mountains, despite decades of argument that they cause environmental degradation.

And Kosciuszko is right next to Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory, which has the highest per capita horse-ownership of anywhere in Australia. Several enterprises run horse-trekking trips into the Snowy Mountains, often interacting with brumbies. The Dalgety and Corryong annual shows on the boundaries of the park highlight horse skills, including catching and gentling brumbies. In many places mountain cattle properties are increasingly using horses instead of motorbikes to handle stock.

The Kosciuszko wild horses are also tangled within the embedded idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the largest national park in New South Wales. Here there are protected populations of two species of invasive fish (brown and rainbow trout) that are demonstrably responsible for local extinctions of native fish and frog species; a gigantic hydro-electric scheme with dominant infrastructure across large areas of the park; and expanding ski resorts where it is possible to buy lodges. Much of the landscape that is now part of the park has a long history of summer grazing by sheep and cattle, with stockworkers’ huts scattered across the high country. This “wilderness” has been home to Aboriginal people for millennia, as well as well-known grazing grounds for more than a century.

These complexities and contradictions reflect our often unconscious modern propensity for hubris: we insist we are in charge of what happens on the planet, including in its “wild” places and “wild” species. Terms like “land management”, “natural resource management”, and “conservation management”, all reflect this assumption of superiority and control.

Roping wild horses, Gippsland, Arthur John Waugh, circa 1910-1920.
State Library of Victoria

Indigenous interactions

The United States has similar controversies over the management of mustangs across large areas of the west. New Zealand has the Kaimanawa horses, a special and isolated herd on army land. In both of those countries, as in Australia, there is a unique history of horse interactions with Indigenous communities. The great Native American horse cultures are well known and extraordinary, as Indians had no introduction to equestrian skills from the Spanish invaders, they learnt extremely quickly from scratch.

The first horses in New Zealand were a gift to Maori communities from missionary Samuel Marsden in 1814, and a Waitangi Tribunal Claim has been brought to protect the Kaimanawa horses as Maori taonga (treasures). Aboriginal stockmen and stockwomen were the mainstay of the pastoral industry all over Australia until the equal wage ruling of 1968 resulted in the wholesale expulsion of Aboriginal stockworkers in north and central Australia.

Peter Mitchell’s recent book Horse Nations uses that term to describe the people-animal relationship in certain Indigenous communities. Both Native American and Aboriginal cosmologies often place animals including horses, as their own “nations”, with whom they have a responsibility to respectfully interact.


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The wild horses of the Australian Alps are arguably the strongest cultural icons. The enduring legacy of The Man from Snowy River, both the iconic Banjo Paterson poem and the 1980s film, but also the Silver Brumby series of novels by Elyne Mitchell, still in print after nearly 70 years, idealise the strength, beauty and spirit of wild mountain horses. At least one source suggests that “the man” from Paterson’s poem was in fact a young Aboriginal rider.

This is not at all implausible – there is much documentation, as well as strong oral histories, of Aboriginal men and women working stock on horseback across the Snowy Mountains. The Aboriginal mountain missions at Brungle and Delegate both have many stories of earlier generations working as stock riders and also mustering wild mountain horses. David Dixon, Ngarigo elder, says

Our old people were animal lovers. They would have had great respect for these powerful horse spirits. Our people have always been accepting of visitors to our lands and quite capable of adapting to change so that our visitors can also belong, and have their place.

While the iconic figure of the cowboy and stockman is masculine, amongst Aboriginal stockworkers women and girls were likely as common as men and boys. In contemporary times, women far outnumber men in equestrian participation, and brumby defenders are equally represented by men and women. Four Australian horsewomen generously shared their knowledge and skills in the research that backgrounds this essay.

Animal intelligence

In the mid 1970s, I worked as a ranger in Kosciuszko National Park. In those days rangering was a seat-of-the-pants enterprise: we used to buy at least part of our uniforms out of our own money because the issued items were so inadequate, we taught ourselves to cross-country ski, we drank socially with the brumby-runners and other people from the surrounding rural communities.

Shooting wild horses, Samuel Calvert, 1889.
State Library of Victoria

In many places rangers were and are intimately part of the community, not seen as “public servants”. There is a complex and interesting relationship between university-educated national parks staff and local rural workers with deeply embodied knowledge and skills, with rangers acknowledging that they need the skills of these locals to carry out much animal-related work in the parks, including trapping and mustering wild horses. Recent proposals to helicopter shoot large numbers of wild horses in Kosciuszko would potentially sever this link. Helicopter shooting requires specific marksmanship skills not common in rural communities.

While we debate how to reduce our wild horse numbers, other countries are working to re-establish wild horse herds in Europe and Asia. It is often argued that domestication saved horses (and many other species) from extinction, aiding their establishment all over the planet while their wild ancestors diminished or disappeared. Creating populations of newly wild species is termed both “rewilding’ and ”de-domestication“, and there are numerous and increasing examples around the world. Some of these proposals include the reestablishment of species long extinct, or their ecological equivalents.

In the period increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene, species are both declining and flourishing. Domesticated species have been moved all over the world; other introduced species flourish in new landscapes, and many of these are escaped or released domesticates. In the oceans, as large predators have declined all the cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish) are increasing. Highly specialised species that evolved on isolated islands have declined precipitously, while generalist species are flourishing.

Global conservation management attempts to work against both of these trends: we attempt to suppress populations of flourishing species, while supporting or increasing populations of declining ones, including through translocations and captive breeding programs. These activities call into question the nature of nature in the 21st century: what is the “wild” in all this management and manipulation?

While Australia debates removing wild horses, other countries are seeking to increase their wild herds.
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In these questions, the lives and cosmologies of Indigenous peoples, and the lives of other species, offer us serious teachings. The agency and intelligence of animals, the increasing discoveries of distinct cultures amongst animal populations, the agency of planetary systems in continually reorganising around changing inputs, all stand against the modern human insistence on control, stability and stasis.

While hiking mountain grasslands looking for wild horse bands, I have several times come across horse skeletons whitening in the sunlight, their energy and power transmuted back into the source from which new lives will spring. In a world where human societies are increasingly narcissistic, where our dominant concern is ourselves, recognising the agency and intelligence of other species can be deeply humbling.

Perhaps our task is to harmonise ourselves with these old and new environments, not continually attempt to “manage” them into some other state that we in our hubris think is more desirable, whether ecologically, economically or culturally.

The ConversationThanks to Adrienne Corradini, Jen Owens, Blaire Carlon and Tonia Gray for improving my understanding of horse and brumby issues.

Michael Adams, Associate Professor of Human Geography, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.