As rabbits are so widely established and abundant in Australia, and given the current resources and techniques available, the focus of management is generally on abating their impacts rather than eradication. However, eradication may be achievable in isolated areas such as small reserves, exclosures, and offshore islands
Sustained control of rabbits is feasible and has been achieved in some large areas using well planned and timely integrated control measures, particularly after rabbits have been reduced by drought or disease (Cooke 1993; Cooke 2012a). Integrated control measures must seek to: use a range of control techniques (e.g. poisoning and warren destruction); target a range of pest species (e.g. rabbit control activities should also focus on the reduction in foxes, feral cats and weeds); and seek to control rabbits across neighbouring land tenures. For example, when integrated control measures were not undertaken on Macquarie Island, the removal of feral cats led to substantial increases to rabbit populations, resulting in landscape wide change and secondary impacts to breeding seabirds (Bergstrom et al. 2009). If integrated control measures had been applied, it may have saved considerable flow-on remedial management costs and previous control actions would not have been reversed.
In order to effectively manage rabbits and maximise control efforts, control efforts should be:
targeted to protect sites where rabbits pose the greatest threat to biodiversity
undertaken in a strategic manner to take advantage of the environmental conditions and other complementary activities, and
monitored to ensure that objectives are met, and allow management options to be adapted to changing circumstances.
There are a range of control measures available for the management of rabbits. These include poison baiting, shooting, biological control agents (although this should not be relied upon as the only control measure), fencing and trapping. Research is continuing into improved biocontrol technology, particularly through three projects run by the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (Invasive Animals CRC) — the RHD Boost, RHD Accelerator and Bioprospecting projects (Cox et al. 2013). Further information on control measures and the Invasive Animals CRC projects can be found in the supporting Background document (Department of the Environment 2015a).
Objectives and actions
The goal of this TAP is to minimise the impact of rabbit competition and land degradation on biodiversity in Australia and its territories by:
Protecting affected threatened species and ecological communities, and
Preventing further species and ecological communities from becoming threatened.
To achieve this goal, the plan has four main objectives:
Strategically manage rabbits at the landscape scale and suppress rabbit populations to densities below threshold levels in identified priority areas
Improve knowledge and understanding of the impact of rabbits and their interactions with other species and ecological processes
Improve the effectiveness of rabbit control programs, and
Increase engagement of, and awareness by, the community of the environmental impacts of rabbits and the need for integrated control.
Each objective is accompanied by a set of actions, which, when implemented, will help to achieve the goal of the plan. Performance indicators have been established for each objective. Progress will be assessed by determining the extent to which the performance indicators have been met.
The sections below provide background on each objective, followed by a table listing the actions required to meet the objective. Nineteen actions have been developed to meet the four objectives.
Priorities for each action are given in the tables below, categorised as ‘very high’, ‘high’ or ‘medium’. Also, each action has been assigned a timeframe within which the outcome could be achieved once the action has commenced. Timeframes are categorised as short term (i.e. within three years), medium term (i.e. within three to five years) or long term (i.e. five years or beyond).
Objective 1 – Strategically manage rabbits at the landscape scale and suppress rabbit populations to densities below threshold levels in identified priority areas
As the eradication of rabbits from all of mainland Australia is not currently feasible, attention needs to be directed to the management and control of populations to reduce their impact on biodiversity. However, in order to efficiently and effectively manage rabbits, control programs need to be strategically designed and implemented. This includes the consideration of a number of different factors which can influence the success or failure, effort required, and costs of control programs. This may include (among others):
Identification of threatened species and habitats where rabbit control activities can provide the most benefit
Wider, community-based coordination of actions, including on-ground control on private properties and in urban areas to provide control across wider areas to slow re-invasion
Incorporation of economic decision-model analyses to maximise cost-benefit outcomes of control programs
Identification of other land management activities such as pest control and weed management programs for integrated control and to reduce unintended consequences, and
Environmental site conditions and their potential influence on control activities.
Control programs also need to take into account the number of rabbits per hectare. Several studies have found that if there are more than 0.5 rabbits per hectare, native species can be severely impacted (Mutze et al. 2008; Bird et al. 2012; Cooke 2012a). For example, when rabbit numbers are greater than 0.5 rabbits per hectare, the recruitment and regeneration of plants are inhibited, causing many of these species to become locally extinct (Mutze et al. 2008; Bird et al. 2012; Cooke 2012a).
The identification and consideration of threatened species and habitats is another critical consideration to ensure the survival of the species in that area. Removal of invasive species such as rabbits has been found to have significant benefits for native species such as reversing local population declines (Mutze et al. 2008; Bird et al. 2012). Management actions for invasive species should therefore focus on removing these threats to enable the persistence of threatened native species and to support well-functioning ecosystems. Species currently identified as being impacted by rabbits are outlined in Appendix A.
In addition to the above factors, prioritisation of control for pest species such as rabbits has been found to be more useful at regional scales e.g. catchment or national resource management levels. Planning at this level enables a more holistic view to rabbit management across regions, particularly in dividing and allocating resources (Murray et al. 2014). Regional areas are also likely to share the same or similar threatened species and ecological communities.
The actions under this objective therefore, seek to assist land managers with information to support strategic rabbit management programs and to focus abatement on priority areas. The actions are envisaged to not only lead to better environmental outcomes such as species and ecological community protection, but to a more efficient and effective use of limited resources.
Key actions for Objective 1 include identifying priority areas for rabbit control on a regional scale, implementing and supporting regional control programs, and promoting and maintaining control programs in areas adjacent to priority areas. In particular, actions will seek to support control of rabbits below threshold levels of 0.5 rabbits per hectare.
Action 1.1 seeks to determine regional priority areas for rabbit control by focussing effort on areas where rabbits have the greatest impact on threatened species and/or ecological communities. This includes identifying priority islands for eradication efforts in each state. It also focuses on determining areas where the regeneration capacity of plants and the recovery of threatened species show the greatest potential. This will help obtain the greatest benefit for the amount of effort and resources put in. Economic decision models will be useful to help determine how these efforts can be prioritised and the best combination of control methods (see background document for further information on economic decision models (Department of the Environment 2015a)).
Action 1.2 follows on from action 1.1 by ensuring that control efforts are focused on a wider and more holistic landscape-scale, rather than on small patches of land and including all land tenures such as private land and urban areas. By focusing efforts in this way, control activities can be planned in a strategic manner to take advantage of environmental conditions and other complementary activities in the area.
Action 1.3 relates to action 1.2, by providing incentives for land managers to undertake more strategic and landscape-scale approaches to control programs. This should include coordination of control activities across neighbouring properties, including adjacent public and private land. Both action 1.3 and 1.2 help to maximise effectiveness and minimise costs by avoiding a piece-meal approach to rabbit control which facilitate immigration from adjoining or adjacent land where no control has been undertaken.
Action 1.4 focuses on assessing the implementation of regional and state and territory based control programs via regular and coordinated monitoring and reporting mechanisms. Monitoring rabbit control programs is critical to assist in determining whether a management program has been successful or not and what the failure points might be. This is particularly important at the regional and state/territory level where funding and effort are put into very similar activities and under similar environmental conditions, but by a range of different groups and individuals. By making program reports readily available, this will help ensure that any future control activities are as effective as possible by allowing management programs to be adapted and avoiding duplication or the implementation of actions that are unlikely to succeed. Where possible, a common and best practice approach to rabbit monitoring should be undertaken to enable comparisons to be made between control activities. Further information on monitoring approaches for rabbits can be found in the background document (Department of the Environment 2015a).
Action 1.5 focuses on targeted eradication efforts on high priority islands identified through action 1.1. Eradications of rabbits from islands may be feasible, particularly if the risk of new arrivals can be mitigated against. The use of integrated and well-thought out management plans will be critical in such eradication programs to avoid unexpected consequences and to ensure their success.
Regional priority areas for rabbit control are determined.
Rabbits maintained at below threshold (0.5 rabbits per hectare) levels in identified priority areas.
Landscape scale control programs are implemented and monitored at regional levels.
Eradication of rabbits on islands is successful where this is attempted.
Priority and timeframe
1.1. Prioritise areas on a regional scale (NRM, catchment level), for: