Effective control of feral cats and foxes outside of fences is critical if we ever hope to re-establish vulnerable wildlife in the wider landscape.
A feral cat caught in a cage trap
The majority of native animals in the prey size range for feral cats and foxes do not have the ability to persist with these introduced predators. The attrition rates from predation are too high for the population to sustain, and more are killed than can be replaced through breeding. Inevitably this leads to extinction. Controlling introduced predators can reduce this pressure and enable native animals to survive.
Whilst Arid Recovery has completely excluded feral predators from our core reserve, we also need to keep the numbers of feral animals down in the surrounding area. This helps to prevent incursions into the reserve, and also improves the survival of native animals outside the fence. To do this, we mostly use trapping and shooting.
Arid Recovery has a permanent set of cat and fox traps surrounding the reserve. These are hooked up to Australia’s first ever remote trap-checking system, powered by Observant technology. Every trap has a solar-powered communication box. If any trap goes off, it will send us a text message instantly. This enables us to respond as soon as possible to any animal captured, minimise the time animals spend in traps, and improve the welfare of trapped cats. This system has proven very successful, and we have removed an average of 60 cats per year with these traps.
A telemetry trap alert that lets us know as soon as an animal is caught.
Powered by Observant technology.
At Arid Recovery, we have trialed many lures for cats and foxes. We have found the most effective lures are cat urine and chicken oil. Fried chicken has worked well. We have also used electronic devices that make a meowing noise (made by Westcare, email them for a quote)
On top of these permanent traps, we also have a team of dedicated volunteer shooters. Some feral cats and foxes are more cautious and will never enter a trap. Shooting is therefore critical for removing these individuals. Some volunteer shooters have removed over 50 cats and foxes for Arid Recovery.
Poison baiting for foxes and cats is used extensively across Australia. Foxes readily take meat baits, so this is a very effective method for this species. However, such baiting programs need to be conducted over large areas, to prevent new animals reinvading straight away. Large-scale operations like Bounceback in the Flinders Ranges has been remarkably successful, as they cover many properties and parks through the region. Unfortunately, many smaller-scale baiting operations that only encompass a single park or reserve are less effective.
Poison baits ready to be laid to help protect our native wildlife
There are now baits specifically designed for cats: Eradicat and Curiosity. These are designed to be the perfect size for a cat meal, have a smell favoured by cats, and contain a cat-specific toxin, sometimes within a small capsule. The scent and the capsule help increase the likelihood that only a cat will be killed by the bait. Cats typically don't chew food, so they swallow baits whole, capsule and all. Meanwhile native animals that chew their food find the capsule and spit out.
Both Eradicat and Curiosity have been trialled at Arid Recovery, with mixed success (see here). Some baiting was incredibly successful, with 80% of cats removed. Other baiting events had no measurable impact whatsoever. This variation is probably because baiting is only effective when cats are hungry. If there is an abundance of live prey about, cats are rarely hungry and therefore unlikely to be interested in old meat.
Despite these issues, cat baiting is still a valuable tool. It can be used in a targeted way to reduce cat density at critical times, when most cats are hungry. Baits can also be an effective means of controlling cats around dumps, as these cats are more used to scavenging. Cat baits continue to be refined and tested so we can expect them to be more effective over time.
At Arid Recovery, we are always creating and trialing new methods for effective cat and fox control. We are also researching any and every aspect of cat and fox ecology possible, to better understand these predators.
We recognise that cats and foxes will never be eradicated from the Australian landscape. Our aim instead is to facilitate coexistence of vulnerable native wildlife with introduced predators. Developing effective predator control is a critical part of stacking the odds in the natives’ favour.
Written by Hugh McGregor (March 2017)