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Beyond the Bale : Dec - Jan 08
By Rebecca Thyer Adecade or so ago, livestock manager David Lenehan used to be able to count 150 to 200 rabbits on a one-kilometre transect at 'Banongill', a 6670-hectare sheep, beef and cropping enterprise near Skipton, western Victoria. However, through baiting, warren ripping and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), the pest is now under control, resulting in increased flock productivity from the station's 21,000 sheep, of which 90 per cent are Merinos. Mr Lenehan says that at the last count he saw just five rabbits. "I think we counted about 20 rabbits in a 17km transect. So there has been a huge improvement." The vast reduction in rabbit numbers has meant ryegrass, cocksfoot and lucerne perennial pastures have become properly established and improved, leading to a 10 to 12 per cent increase in lambing percentages in the past five years. Extra feed has increased wool cuts by nearly a kilogram per sheep and improved tensile strength. The previous 'Banongill' manager Jonathan Tischler, who now runs his own 770ha property near Hamilton, says that chronic rabbit infestations can cut stocking rates by a fifth. "From past experiences at 'Banongill', we were able to increase the stocking rate by 20 per cent when rabbits were removed because of increased feed," he says. The stocking rate has been reduced because of recent dry years, but Mr Tischler says it would have been even lower if rabbits had remained a problem. Before the station's eradication program started, rabbits would not only remove perennial pastures and spread annual weed seeds, but also eat new tree shoots, hampering efforts to create a shelter-belt. Today, a belt of mainly sugargums mixed with bluegums and Eucalyptus leucoxylon, is thriving. Mr Tischler says 60,000 trees have been planted since RHD was introduced in April 1996. Perennial pasture growth is now also helping to smother annual weeds. With rabbits eating the ground bare and their warrens opening up the higher ground, dust storms were also common. Today, they are a thing of the past. The station's eradication program started about 10 years ago. Working with the local Selkirk Rises Landcare group and neighbours, the station baited rabbits with carrots 15 RABBIT CONTROL BEYOND THE BALE Production marvel on a rabbit-free run A western Victorian wool property reports productivity and environmental gains as a result of its efforts to remove rabbits sprayed with 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate -- a metabolic poison that occurs naturally in some native plants in Western Australia). Four hundred hectare-sized blocks were locked off and poisoned carrots dropped from an aircraft, followed-up by excavators ripping open warrens. However, Mr Lenehan says the baiting and ripping program was strengthened exponentially when the biological control RHD hit: "We'd been baiting and ripping for a while when the virus hit. It pushed the eradication program to a new level." Mr Tischler says baiting and ripping are only "stop gaps" in any rabbit-control program. "What we really need is another biological agent, especially as rabbits are building resistance to RHD." He is one of two woolgrower representatives on the Rabbit Management Advisory Group. The other is Broken Hill's David Lord. The group is working with AWI, Meat and Livestock Australia and the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre on projects to assess the threat posed by rabbits to Australia's livestock producers. The group aims to raise awareness of rabbits as an important environmental issue. "The rabbit problem has disappeared from the front page because it doesn't have much appeal," Mr Tischler says. "But there is plenty of evidence to show rabbits cause damage and we need to control them. It can't be just seen to be a farmer's problem. Rabbits are a problem in national parks and on Aboriginal lands." Mr Tischler says the fact that rabbits thrive in a milder Mediterranean-style environment -- an environment probable across more parts of Australia with climate change -- means it is vital to develop new control methods. Although Mr Tischler now runs 4000 sheep -- Merinos and crossbred ewes -- where rabbits are not a problem, his 14 years at 'Banongill' have given him an insight into the damage they can cause. He sees rabbit control as a part of a broader environmental goal, one of sustainable ecosystem management: "If we can regenerate the rangeland's native grasses, then we can absorb more carbon, which should be part of the answer in addressing climate change. But we can't do this if rabbits continue to be a problem. However, we need to think broader than rabbits, and target foxes and wild dogs as well, because economic and environmental concerns do go hand in hand." The organisation Rabbit Free Australia estimates that rabbits cost $600 million a year in lost production alone, not including the costs of control or the environmental damage they cause. Mr Lenehan says 'Banongill's' rabbit eradication has not come cheaply, but with increases in productivity the economic benefits are now clear. "The general health of our stock has also increased." To keep on top of rabbits, warrens are identified, a ripper employed once a year and baiting continues. Mr Lenehan says that the worst areas are now the hard-to-get-to places, such as around sheds. Warrens in these areas have to be fumigated. ú More information: Jonathan Tischler, firstname.lastname@example.org. net.au; David Lenehan, email@example.com Rabbit 'browse-line' at 50 centimetres on the wattle Acacia ligulata: if rabbits were not present foliage would reach down to the ground. 'Banongill' station manager David Lenehan with ripped rabbit warrens. A rabbit has gnawed bark from this Bursaria spinosa stem and severed twigs -- note the secateurs-like cut on twig on right. PHOTO: REBECCA THYER
Oct 07 - Nov 07
Feb - Mar 08 Supplement