The EPBC Act requires that a threat abatement plan be reviewed by the Minister at intervals of no longer than five years. The 2008 Threat Abatement Plan for the competition and land degradation by rabbits was reviewed by the Department of the Environment in 2013. The review assessed the progress and effectiveness of the threat abatement plan in: reducing the impacts of rabbits on biodiversity, specifically nationally listed threatened species and ecological communities; and preventing further species and communities from becoming threatened, through research, management and other actions. The review can be accessed at: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/tap/competition-and-land-degradation-rabbits. In summary, the review found that:
the issues and objectives outlined in the 2008 TAP were still valid and are likely to remain so into the future
rabbits have reached their ecological limit within Australia; threat abatement should therefore focus on minimising their impact rather than preventing further spread
there have been several successful eradications of rabbits on offshore islands in the last five years, most notably the eradication from Macquarie Island
exclosures have been useful in quantifying the impacts of rabbits on native flora and fauna
rabbits inhibit the regeneration of plants at densities as low as 0.5 rabbits per hectare
rabbit control programs have often been ad hoc, lacked strategic prioritisation, and have rarely been initiated in order to promote threatened species or ecological community recovery
information on the effects of rabbit abundance on pest predators, including prey switching, is limited
rabbit control research over the last five years has predominantly focussed on increasing the effectiveness of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease, with several new strains identified, and
new approaches and educational tools e.g. online manuals, guidelines, factsheets and economic decision models, have been produced to assist land managers implement integrated control programs.
This new TAP incorporates the knowledge gained since the 2008 TAP and the new objectives and actions have been written in line with the recommendations of the review.
Involvement of stakeholders
The successful implementation of this TAP will depend on a high level of cooperation between landholders, community groups, non-government conservation organisations, local government, state and territory conservation and pest management agencies, and the Australian Government. Success will depend on all participants allocating adequate resources to achieve effective on-ground control of rabbits at critical sites, improving the effectiveness of control programs, and measuring and assessing outcomes. It is acknowledged that there have been declines in the number of people working on rabbit issues at a various levels of government, and this may add to the challenge of allocating adequate resources. However, programs in natural resource management, at national, state and regional levels, can make significant contributions to implementing the plan.
Threat abatement plan for rabbits
This section provides an overview of the threat and management of competition and land degradation by rabbits. The background document (Department of the Environment and Energy 2016a) should be referred to for further information.
The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) was deliberately released onto the Australian mainland in the mid to late 1800s. Rabbits dominated two-thirds or 70% of the continent within 70 years (equivalent to approximately 5.3 million square kilometres) (Cox et al. 2013; Bengsen & Cox 2014). With the exception of the feral cat in Australia, this is considered to be the fastest rate of any colonizing mammal anywhere in the world (cited in Williams et al. 1995; McLeod 2004) — with colonisation greatly aided by the use of warrens (which protect them against predators and climatic extremes), their high reproductive rates, and their ability to survive in a wide range of habitats (Williams et al. 1995). They are now one of the most widely distributed and abundant mammals in Australia (Williams et al. 1995); found in all states and territories and many offshore islands, with only the most northerly regions of the mainland being rabbit free. Their exact abundance is unknown and cannot be readily quantified as population sizes frequently fluctuate through factors such as breeding events, mortality caused from biocontrol agents or drought, and availability of resources.
Rabbits inflict substantial damage upon both agricultural and environmental assets (e.g. native flora and fauna, vegetation communities, landforms, geomorphic processes and sensitive sites, and crops) and have been described as Australia’s most costly vertebrate pest (Cooke et al. 2013). For agricultural commodities, this damage has been estimated at exceeding $200 million annually (Gong et al. 2009); for environmental commodities, the value of the damage has not been quantified. The introduction of rabbit biocontrol agents (myxoma and rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus) have helped to reduce environmental impacts of rabbits in Australia and provided an economic benefit, although even at lower densities (e.g. more than 0.5 rabbits per hectare), their impact still continues to be severe (Bird et al. 2012; Cooke et al. 2010; Cooke 2012b; cited in Cooke et al. 2013). Direct impacts of rabbits include:
competition with native wildlife for resources (food and shelter)
preventing plant regeneration
overgrazing and general damage to plant species
reversing the normal processes of plant succession
removal of critical habitat for arboreal mammals and birds, leading to increased predation and reduced reproduction.
Rabbits also have indirect impacts on native flora and fauna, including:
supporting elevated population densities of pest predators such as foxes and feral cats. They can also support wild dogs (wild dogs are not a problem across all parts of Australia, and indeed can play an important ecological role), and
promoting growth of introduced and unpalatable species such as weeds.
Rabbits impact over 300 EPBC Act listed threatened species and nine ecological communities. This includes 44 species of fauna (15 birds, 20 mammals, 6 reptiles, 1 invertebrate, 1 fish and 1 amphibian) and 260 listed plant species (Department of the Environment 2015b). A full list of these species is at Appendix A.