In order to reduce the impact of rabbits on native biodiversity and ecosystems, the use, improvement and development of control tools and programs is of high importance. However, as improving the effectiveness of control programs and control methods (particularly biocontrol agents) or developing new tools can take many years, it is imperative that strategic research and development of more effective and efficient or new techniques is begun prior to any significant increases in rabbit numbers (Saunders et al. 2010; Cox et al. 2013).
In order to improve the effectiveness of rabbit control programs, we also need to understand the impact that control activities are having in the field. As such, surveillance and monitoring of control activities and their effect on rabbits, including abundance, will be critical in providing information for future management actions. This will include research into, and the development of, additional control measures and use of new biocontrol agents. The research should include the goal of improving the animal welfare of the rabbits with the control tools.
Key actions for Objective 3 therefore include: improving conventional control options and tools for land managers; improving the coordination of monitoring and surveillance of rabbit control programs; continuing research into new biocontrol and other novel control options; and increasing the adoption of standard operating procedures.
Action 3.1 seeks to support ongoing research to ensure conventional management options are effective, target specific and humane. This includes supporting the development of more humane baits and conventional control methods — for example, the development of a humane carbon monoxide warren fumigator by the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre. The development of further control tools is expected to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency and humaneness of control programs. It may also reduce potential impacts on both the environment and non-target species.
Actions 3.2 to 3.5 focus on maximising the effectiveness of rabbit biocontrol programs through understanding interactions and evolutions of rabbit viruses, their optimal use, investigating the use of new viruses, and developing and registering new biocontrol agents/products. This includes increasing our understanding of how, and under what circumstances, the endemic RHD virus (RCV-A1) — which is found in cool and wet areas of Australia — interacts with the current RHDV strains and helps provide immunity. Given the effectiveness of biocontrol agents in reducing rabbit numbers and in helping to protect threatened species, these actions are considered of high priority and will require a long-term and ongoing commitment. Through developing a greater understanding of the rabbit biocontrol viruses, including behaviours and evolutions, and increasing their effectiveness in the field, Australia will be better placed to respond to any future increase in rabbit numbers. It will also allow land managers to counteract any decrease in the effectiveness of existing strains by having new and effective biocontrol tools. Research being undertaken through Invasive Animals CRC programs such as the RHD Boost and Acceleration programs (see background document for further information on these programs (Department of the Environment and Energy 2016a)) will be of benefit to these actions. Other research institutes including universities and the CSIRO are also well placed to conduct novel research programs into control of rabbits based on their genetics, neurology and other physiological processes.
Actions 3.6 focuses on ensuring there is adequate monitoring and surveillance throughout Australia to determine whether or not rabbit pathogens continue to be effective in reducing rabbit numbers. Monitoring and surveillance is also critical to understanding the prevalence, seasonal fluctuations and interactions with the current biocontrol agents (Cox et al. 2013) and contributes to the outcomes of actions 3.3 to 3.5. Research under this action should include pre and post monitoring for any new release of a pathogen to track its performance and to better estimate the return on investment. This will help inform and define how successful future releases of biocontrol agents in the field might be and how they might complement or reduce the effects of existing measures (Saunders et al. 2010; Cox et al. 2013).
Action 3.7 aims to provide further tools for land managers to improve their ability to predict and forecast optimal rabbit control methods in order to effectively reduce the number of rabbits and their impact on various landscapes. At present, very few tools exist to estimate the various costs of using different control measures and how inaction may affect numbers of rabbits, impacts on the environment, and costs over time. In addition, existing tools are limited to certain regions and habitat types and have not yet been extrapolated for use in all habitat types. Expanding the applicability of these tools would assist land managers to design more effective control programs and gain a better understanding of the potential impact of their choice of control activities.
Action 3.8 follows on from action 3.7 by aiming to develop further economic assessment methods to determine the environmental benefits of rabbit control. At present, a model has been developed by Cooke et al. (2010) for the control of rabbits across south-eastern Australia with values assigned to native vegetation. Further native vegetation models need to be developed for use across all areas of Australia. Also of importance, values need to be assigned to the protection of native fauna, particularly those that are listed as threatened under the EPBC Act. Such values are likely to support management actions for native species and ecological communities, rather than only for agriculture where monetary values (and hence losses) can be more readily quantified.
For all of these actions, the outputs need to be made readily available and understandable for land managers so that they are able to translate the findings into improved control of rabbits.
Current control tools are refined (where possible) to improve effectiveness and humaneness.
Additional effective and humane control tools, including biological control agents, are developed. Research papers are published on the biology of rabbit viruses, including their behaviour, evolution and impediments.
Research papers and general information is published on the interactions of RHDV strains, their long term evolution and the development of genetic resistance by rabbits.
Forecasting tools to predict the impact of changes in rabbit numbers and effectiveness of control methods in different landscapes developed and promoted.
Monetary values are able to be assigned to the impact of rabbits on environmental assets.
Pre and post monitoring is undertaken for the release of any new biocontrol agents.
Priority and timeframe
3.1 Develop new methods and refine current methods for rabbit control that are effective, target specific and humane.
3.5 Increase understanding of the long term effect of evolution and genetic resistance to biocontrol agents.
Medium priority, long term
A clear understanding of the virus’ evolution and role in genetic resistance. Future biocontrol programs are strengthened by taking account of the rate of evolution and development of genetic resistance.
Research papers and reports on virus evolution and its role in genetic resistance are published.
3.6 Conduct pre and post monitoring to determine success of biocontrol releases across a range of landscapes