Today’s species highlight is on an animal most Australian hunters would be familiar with, the Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). This overview will go over the introduction, dispersal, and establishment of the animal, then onto the damage that they do to the damage and the management techniques employed.
The Red fox is native to Great Britain, where it was originally imported from in the late 1800’s. Historical records indicate that the populations that have established in Australia predominately stem from three to eight purposeful releases in 1871 in Victoria1. These purposeful releases, among with several others, were to establish a huntable species presence in Australia that was similar to what would be found in Britain. There were further releases for sporting purposes, where hunting clubs at the time would release foxes to then track and kill. Records indicate that most of these hunts were successful, and that single day hunts likely did not contribute to many more foxes in the wild1. The wild fox populations are then hypothesised to have followed the spread of the wild rabbits, and within 50 years, had made their way to the west coast of Australia2. It is believed their pathway was along the Australian waterways, however due to human settlement being predominately along the waterways, sightings and historical records may be bias.
Today, the Red fox is found in all states of Australia and is believed to be quite widespread, with exception to the northern ends of the country. Interestingly, abundance of the fox dwindles in areas with known dingo populations, and it is believed that through various means (resource competition largely) the dingo can suppress fox numbers, which in turn increase biodiversity3.
The Red fox in Australia has been an ecological disaster for the country, with the animal being directly implicated in multiple native fauna extinctions4. The main prey for the Red fox is small marsupials and native mammals, including bettongs, the bilby, numbats, quokkas, antechinus, and numerous other small animals5. Dietary analyses indicate that not only does the Red fox prey on small marsupials, however, they will also target various Australian reptiles6. For a long while it was believed that the arboreal fauna was safe from foxes, however, recent research has shown that populations of foxes have learnt to climb trees and are now preying on arboreal marsupials such as flying foxes, koalas, and possums7. This is all highly undesirable.
Post introduction and dispersal, the fox has been quite a difficult animal to manage, due to multiple reasons such as the natural intelligence of the animal, and it’s more nocturnal behaviours. Many local area governments have employed baiting in some fashion, however these often are indiscriminate and do not garner the desired results. The current most successful method is through trapping and shooting efforts, where individuals find success through night hunting, utilising a spotlight and eyeshine.
Interestingly, there are numerous calls for reintroduction efforts of two species. First, as mentioned earlier, is the dingo. Where dingoes are abundant, fox numbers are low (also cats, but that is another article), and native diversity is high8. This line of reasoning also forms the basis for trialling the reintroduction of Tasmanian Devils onto the mainland, as it is believed they will outcompete the fox and contribute to a decline in numbers.
The introduction of the fox has been devastating for the Australian ecosystem and environments. What was thought to be harmless introductions so as to have a huntable species, has turned into a native fauna extinction driver. Native Australian animal conservation efforts are greatly helped by hunting programs and hunters, and would benefit more through programs that include hunting in areas of high conservation value.
- Fairfax, R.J., Dispersal of the introduced red fox (Vulpes vulpes) across Australia. Biological invasions, 2018. 21(4): p. 1259-1268.
- Abbott, I., D. Peacock, and J. Short, The new guard: the arrival and impacts of cats and foxes. Carnivores of Australia: past, present and future, 2014: p. 69-104.
- Davis, N.E., et al., Interspecific and geographic variation in the diets of sympatric carnivores: dingoes/wild dogs and red foxes in south-eastern Australia. PloS one, 2015. 10(3): p. e0120975-e0120975.
- Short, J., The extinction of rat-kangaroos (Marsupialia:Potoroidae) in New South Wales, Australia. Biological Conservation, 1998. 86(3): p. 365-377.
- Service, N.N.P.a.W., Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), N.N.P.a.W. Service, Editor. 2001: Hurtsville.
- Fleming, P.A., et al., Diet of the introduced red fox Vulpes vulpes in Australia: analysis of temporal and spatial patterns. Mammal Review, 2021. 51(4): p. 508-527.
- Mella, V.S.A., et al., Foxes in trees: a threat for Australian arboreal fauna? Australian Mammalogy, 2018. 40(1): p. 103-105.
- Ritchie, E.G., et al., Ecosystem restoration with teeth: what role for predators? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 2012. 27(5): p. 265-271.