European Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
History and distribution
The fox occurs naturally only in the northern hemisphere and was introduced into southern Victoria in 1871 for recreational hunting. Colonisation was rapid and closely linked to the spread of the rabbit. By 1893 foxes were reported in New South Wales; in 1901 in South Australia; in 1907 in Queensland; and in 1912 in Western Australia. Today the fox is one of the most widely spread feral animals in Australia. Foxes were deliberately introduced into Tasmania in 2001 with sightings increasing since that time. A fox carcass was found on a road at Burnie in October 2003. Efforts are being made to eradicate the fox before they establish in Tasmania.
The European red fox is Australia’s number one predator threatening the long-term survival of a range of native wildlife. Animals that are endangered due to the fox include the rock-wallaby, numbat, brush-tailed bettong and bilby. The economic significance of foxes as predators of livestock is uncertain and subject to debate, but lamb losses attributable to foxes can be as high as 30% in some areas. Foxes also pose risks as potential hosts of exotic diseases such as rabies, which threaten human and animal health.
Foxes have been implicated in the decline and extinction of many species of ground dwelling mammals in inland, mainland Australia. Until now, Tasmania has been spared from this devastating predator. Around 10 mammalian species unique to Tasmania fall within a critical weight range of 35 to 5,500 grams and are therefore subject to predation by foxes. The impact of the fox upon Tasmania’s wildlife, agriculture, domestic animals and associated industries would be devastating should the fox establish there.
Biology and Ecology
A number of qualities have helped the fox be so successful in Australia. Foxes have a wide dietary range including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fruit. However, wherever rabbits are common they form the major staple food of foxes. Although litters are small and females only breed once per year, foxes have high reproductive success as cub survival is high. The fox has few serious diseases and few natural enemies in Australia. The worldwide distribution of the fox suggests it can survive in most environments except tropical climates. In Australia it is found from the arid centre to the alps and coast and is also abundant in urban areas.
Historically, management of fox damage in Australia has relied on bounty systems coupled with a range of control techniques including shooting, poisoning and trapping. In most states and territories, legislative provisions require the control of foxes by landholders, however these are rarely enforced. Government agencies mostly recommend the use of poisons such as strychnine or 1080 to reduce fox populations, with other options including shooting, trapping, fumigation or adjustments to farming practices. Bounties have not been successful, mainly because they encourage action where foxes are easiest to collect, not necessarily where they are causing the most damage. Bounties are also readily abused and are not a recommended control strategy. Current research is looking at potential new poisons for fox control.