Our Cooperative Research Centre has been conducting a Community Awareness Survey of Australian's thoughts about feral animals for over 18 months. Valuemetrics Australia, one of the CRC's small business participants runs the survey with Prof. Julian Cribb, well-known science communicator.
The survey is taken through the internet, with participants recruited to fill in an on-line survey giving us about 500 samples a quarter, or 2,000 a year. We chose to do weekly sampling to see if the survey would be sensitive enough pick up current issues of interest. Participants are asked to name the top five species of feral animal that concern them ("feral" here can mean a native species - there is room for participants to name their own). Two species have featured in the public's "top five ferals" every week without fail: the cane toad and the feral cat. Nine out of ten and seven out of ten Australians rank these species, respectively, in their top five.
These results might be of value in developing policy positions. For example, one might speculate that Australians would be supportive of greater restrictions on cat ownership because of the high level of concern about feral cats. In fact, when the Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary opened in Canberra last week, there was little comment on the fact that cat ownership in the adjacent suburbs had been restricted. If you wish to own a cat in the suburbs of Forde or Bonner (and eventually Throsby if it is built), you must keep the cat indoors or provide an enclosed cat run. This small measure is to try and reduce the burden of cats on local wildlife - and no one seems to mind at all.
At the same opening, I organised for a local high school student, Joss Kirk, to present his sustainability assignment on improving rabbit control to the Australian Capital Territory's Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope. I was delighted to receive Joss' assignment the week before for comment because we struggle to get younger people interested and involved in the issue of invasive animals in the environment.
We've been happy to see the rabbit rise through the community awareness rankings during this year to be at the number three spot on the worst ferals list. We like to think it has something to do with our 150th year of rabbits in Australia commemorations: Rabbiting On, RabbitScan and all the other publicity this year. But from the demographics of the community awareness survey, we know that the level of concern about rabbits amongst young people is particularly low.
Joss Kirk was two years old when RHD (calicivirus) was released and had its impact on rabbits. During his life time, there has been very little public discussion about the role of rabbits in agriculture and the environment, so it's not surprising that people from his generation are not concerned. Joss' interest came from the fact that he has hands on experience at a family property where rabbits interfere with environmental restoration work. His personal experience has led to him realising there is a lot of science involved with understanding and controlling rabbits. I'm pretty sure he'll get a good mark for the assignment.
Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary is a new environmental asset for the Canberra region. It is a 480 ha feral-proof reserve where the total ecosystem is under study, mainly by researchers from the ANU's Fenner School for the Environment and Society. As they've studied the Yellow Box ecosystem, they've realised the need for native animals to have the system functioning properly. They arranged for 2,000 tonnes of trees to be put back on the ground to make up for over a century of firewood removal. Over time, a number of native species will be reintroduced. The diggings and actions of the natives and their role in ecosystem functioning will be able to be studied at a location of importance that is only 20 minutes away from University environment departments.
Having helped Joss a little with his assignment, I'm now picking his brains on how to interest more young people in feral animal issues. His initial advice is to organise them hands-on experience wherever possible, so we've got the thinking hat on as to how to do this at Mulligans Flat.