October 8, 2011

Red Squirrels and Hairy-nosed Wombats

What's that expression? When a door closes a window opens?

A couple of weeks ago The Guardian reported* on the continuing demise of the Red Squirrel, especially in England and Wales. The UK, like Australia, has suffered from the introduction of animals that outstayed their welcome. The Grey Squirrel came from the US in the late 19th century: it's bigger and feistier than the indigenous Red, which is now found only in isolated pockets of the British Isles.

Greys damage the bark of broadleaved trees, bully birds out of suburban gardens, and carry squirrel pox virus, identified in 2005. There are thought to be more than 3 million of them. By contrast, the more timid Reds have dwindled by more than 50 per cent in 50 years (exact figures are not known but may be as low as 120,000).

The Common Dormouse isn't faring too well either. Nor the Harvest Mouse, Mountain Hare, Water Vole, Scottish Wildcat and the humble hedgehog. There were 30 million hedgehogs in the 1950s: now there are about 1.5 million.

But otters and bats are doing better as a result of biodiversity action plans. Otters now enjoy cleaner rivers following the banning of sheep-dip chemicals in the late 1990s. Brown Hares, Polecats and Greater and Lesser Horseshoe Bats are also increasing in number.

On the other side of the planet, the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat of Northern Queensland is among the world's most endangered animals. There are fewer of them than Giant Pandas or Sumatran Tigers. NHN Wombats are shy, nocturnal creatures. They have lost their territory to cattle, sheep and rabbits, and fall prey to wild dogs and drought. Numbers fell to 35 in 1983. Under a state government protection programme, however, their numbers have been increasing – from 115 to 138 between 2007 and 2009.

Their last natural stronghold was in Epping Forest. That's near Emerald, not northeast London; the town sits on the Tropic of Capricorn 275 kilometres west of Rockhampton. Then came plans to establish a second colony, in southwestern Queensland, just in case the one in Epping was wiped out by an extreme event. With sponsorship from the mining company Xstrata (Emerald is located in a huge mining region), a suitable site was found and developed at Yarran Downs near St George. A predator-proof fence surrounded the Richard Underwood Nature Reserve, and DERM (Department of Environment and Resource Management) rangers dug 'starter' burrows for the translocated animals and cleared the area of undesirable weeds. During 2009 and 2010, 15 wombats were moved. Wombat monitoring and fire, weed and predator management are ongoing.

In March and April this year came news of the birth of two joeys at the second colony.

Habitat destruction – whether it be the result of logging, mining, farming or urban development – plays a significant role in the demise of fauna and flora the world over, and especially so here in Australia. Perhaps it takes the occupants of a big country longer to appreciate the toll taken by extensive resource development.

The relocation of just a few NHN Wombats took a huge amount of time and effort. Many other animals need help to survive now, or they will do very soon, including koalas, bandicoots, possums, Tasmanian Devils, quokkas, quolls, dugongs, turtles, dolphins and sharks – to name but very few** of the most exotic. Even Rainbow Lorikeet numbers are dropping on the Gold Coast.

More biodiversity conservation programmes are imperative.


* State of Britain's Mammals 2011, by Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Unit for the People's Trust for Endangered Species

** For lists of those at risk from climate change see www.cana.net.au/bush/aus_animals.htm

Image courtesy of DERM


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