We were sitting on the verandah after supper the other evening, talking about the wildcat that saw off Jock Barr.
Ben said that of all the many foreign species that white settlers have introduced into the country over the past two centuries or so, feral cats are the worst pests, and they've done by far the most damage to indigenous Australian wildlife.
This is surprising when you look at the long list of imported livestock that now roams the bush, both domestic and feral, and Ben is the first to admit that running too many sheep and cattle in the fragile ecology of the outback might be up there as a major contender in the ‘buggering up the planet’ stakes. But in this instance he was talking specifically about the effect the cats have had on local wildlife.
Domestic cats have been going wild in the outback ever since the first European voyagers brought the ship's moggy ashore with them early in the 18th century. In fact, I read somewhere that the very first cats may have struggled onto the eastern seaboard from the wrecks of Dutch explorers some time before that. The feral descendants of these cats have colonised the whole country, and apart from denting Jock’s dignity they’ve also had a field day killing off the smaller local species of animals and birds.
To make things much worse, among many other pests and diseases the early European settlers also brought with them the first rabbits, rats and mice that Australia had ever seen, which in their turn have caused untold damage to native species and, particularly in the case of rabbits, to the environment.
Then somewhere around the turn of the 19th century - late in the 1800’s - some bright spark apparently remembered the nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly, then swallowed a spider to catch the fly, and then swallowed a mouse to catch the spider, then a cat to catch the mouse, etc etc. At the time this obviously struck the men in charge as a brilliant idea, so large numbers of cats were deliberately let loose in the bush to catch the rabbits, rats and mice.
It didn’t work. Not surprisingly the cats found unsuspecting small marsupials a much easier target, and over the following years a growing number of local species shrank to nothing and disappeared into extinction.
The Australian government has shot itself in the foot with this same
environmental management blunderbuss several times in the much more
Here on Cockatoo Creek the most obvious evidence of this is sitting on the ground gazing at the electric light and gulping about two metres away from where I am sitting writing my diary. He - or she - is a descendent of the South American toads the government imported to control cane beetles on Queensland’s coastal sugar cane plantations in 1935. It was another wizard wheeze that backfired, and now we have a colony of large, hideous, poisonous, pale green cane toads living under the water tank next to the bough shelter.
To be fair the toads probably did rid Queensland of cane beetles,
but when the beetles had all gone they found plenty of other local
insects and small mammals to keep them going.
Because the cane toads’ skin and their tadpoles are highly toxic they kill off any native species hungry enough to try to eat them, and so they multiply unmolested. The colony here on Cockatoo Creek is definitely growing, which presumably means they are breeding, which is a disgusting thought. In an effort to control their numbers, we sometimes scoop up one or two of the bigger adults with a long handled shovel and carry them like small green potentates down to the creek. They don’t seem to mind sitting on the shovel, but they obviously prefer the damp darkness under the water tank and we reckon they make their way back. Short of bashing them on the head with the shovel, there’s not much we can do about them.
Not even the feral cats can stomach a cane toad, but as Ben says the
cats have had plenty of native alternatives to sustain their own population explosion. The Australian government is promoting a wildcat eradication
programme now with a focus on ‘humane means of population control’,
which in the outback means shooting them with a bigger rifle.
But for many species in these parts of Queensland it is already too late, and feral cats may be at least partly to blame for the sad fact that in this neck of the outback we will never see another Paradise Parrot or White-Footed Rabbit-Rat, a Long-Nosed Bandicoot, a Bilby or an Eastern Quoll. The Brush-Tailed Bettong has been swept into the dustpan of extinction and the Darling Downs Hopping Mouse will never bounce across this landscape again.
There are hundreds of extraordinary sights that still make me rein in and laugh with disbelief in the middle of mustering here on Cockatoo Creek: strutting Frill Necked lizards and gaping Blue Tongues, swirling clouds of rainbow coloured parakeets and snowstorms of Sulphur-Crested Cockatiels; there are two metre long goannas that can swarm along the ground faster than a horse can canter, and two metre high Brolga cranes that need a hundred gangling metres of runway along the Beef Road to take to the air.
Just a little further north of us in the dense bush closer to the Queensland coast there are dozens of species of birds of paradise whose plumeage and courtship rituals Buckle says would make you set fire to your own hat in wonder and amazement. But what unique glories did the last Paradise Parrot take with it into history? And would you be delighted or petrified if you came face to face with an Eastern Quoll?
The wildcat that duffed up Jock is the only one I have seen in these parts, and other than Deborah’s two speyed house pets Ben says he hasn’t seen a cat on Cockatoo Creek for about three years, but there are plenty of other feral animals here to cause us problems.
In a country this big and empty, every kind of domestic animal seems to have found the space to go wild.
We have at least three big mobs of wild pigs on the station, which are no real danger to humans unless you catch a big boar by surprise and he turns on you, in which case, says Ben, you run like hell for the nearest tree and climb for your life.
To the cattle, though, they can pose at least one horrible threat. They’re scavengers, they can bite like a crocodile, and they eat any damn thing they come across. Like sharks, they can also smell blood or food from miles away, and that includes cows giving birth to their calves out in the paddocks.
Up on her feet, a cow defending a newborn calf is more than a match for any pig, or anything else for that matter. A cow can give birth standing, but more often than not she is likely to lie down, and then she’s defenceless. If there are pigs close by they will come hurrying to the smell of blood and afterbirth. If it is a difficult or long drawn out birth, they have more time to arrive from further away. Like any wild animal, when they arrive they start eating, whether their prey is alive or dead.
Not that long ago when we were mustering in Two Tree Paddock we came across the remains of a cow and her half born calf. It's possible that the calf may have been stuck and both cow and calf may have died of blood loss or exhaustion, and the growing number of cattle on Cockatoo Creek proves that the great majority of cows drop their calves successfully and survive. Judging by the remains, however, the pigs had clearly been the midwives here, and rationally or not that’s why Jonathon and I go out shooting the bastards whenever we can.
Besides wild pigs there are the cats, of course, and Ben says that the dingoes we glimpse sometimes and hear almost every evening can probably trace their roots back to the hunting dogs that arrived here with the first humans somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago.
Buckle told us that out in the most remote areas of the outback where he worked when he was younger and less battered, there are big herds of feral camels and wild donkeys that have to be culled regularly by marksmen shooting from low flying helicopters. These are the legacy of the pack animals that were used as transport way out in the driest parts of the country a century and more ago. The camels were imported originally from Afghanistan along with their Afghan handlers, and while the Afghans have either long since gone home or blended into the Australian melting pot, their camels have resolutely stayed aloof and apart, competing with the kangeroos and donkeys for a living far out in the bush where nobody complains about their appalling personal hygiene.
We don’t have camels or donkeys on Cockatoo Creek, but we do have at least one herd of wild horses, and probably two. They range where they like across the station with no regard to the fences, so it’s hard to keep track of their numbers or their herd groupings.
Ben thinks there are around thirty of these feral horses, or brumbies, on the property, which is too many for a couple of important reasons. The first is obviously that horses eat and drink as much as cattle, and we don’t have any forage or water to spare. The second much more serious problem is that the herd - or both herds - will include at least one mature stallion and a handful of ambitious colts, all of whom will do their damnedest to get to our stockhorse mares when they smell them coming into season.
Ben has lost mares this way in the past. A brumby stallion will break through any fence to mate with a mare in season, and true to their nature the mare, or mares, are more than likely to follow him out into the bush before or after mating. Driven by their herd instincts, other stockhorses may well join the exodus.
This is going to become an even bigger cause for concern when Ben brings the Campbell’s own stud stallion over here to Cockatoo Creek from Straight Creek in a fortnight’s time, and I am very sorry to say that we have been setting the trap gates for the brumbies here for the past few weeks in an effort to try and nail the wild stallions before that happens.
more to follow - shooting brumbies…