A multi-million dollar fox scalping program is “violent” and “ineffective” according to animal welfare advocates who are calling for it to be overhauled.
Red foxes are one of the most destructive introduced predators in Australia, pushing native species to the brink of extinction, impacting livestock industries, and costing the economy an estimated $227.5 million a year.
While wildlife advocates generally agree foxes must be suppressed for prey species to recover, questions have been raised about the efficacy of the Victorian government’s bounty program.
The scheme has received criticism from animal rights groups including the Animal Justice Party and Melbourne Hunt Saboteurs, but also the Invasive Species Council which advocates for stronger laws to destroy feral species.
Even Victoria’s agriculture department concedes that despite investing millions of dollars in the program since it began in 2011, it's difficult to assess its direct impact in reducing fox numbers.
Evaluations of the scheme in 2016 and 2017 have instead focused on program delivery and community participation and the findings are not publicly available.
"The Victorian fox and wild dog bounty is an incentive program designed to encourage community participation in managing fox and wild dog populations," an Agriculture Victoria spokesperson said.
“The Victorian fox and wild dog bounty contributes to an integrated management approach for fox and wild dog management, including shooting, baiting, exclusion fencing and trapping programs.”
Fox scalping scheme a 'waste of public funds'
The fox bounty program, paired with a similar dingo scheme, is one of two major wild animal shooting projects rolled out by the Andrews Labor Government. The other is its controversial kangaroo harvesting program.
Over 19,000 participants have collected bounties on more than 940,000 foxes since the program began, but its impact on overall numbers is believed to be insignificant.
A 2003 assessment of a trial bounty program, which operated under a similar arrangement, found such schemes cannot provide broad scale or consistent control required for widespread fox reduction, concluding it resulted in just a four per cent drop in numbers.
Bounty schemes only work when animal numbers are already low, according to the Invasive Species Council which argues amateur shooting as a control measure is generally ineffective.
It advocates hiring professionals to target feral animals, citing Victoria's Philip Island as an example where this action protected little penguins from being decimated by foxes.
Invasive Species Council’s CEO Andrew Cox argues that recreational shooters hanging scalped foxes from fences merely gives the appearance that progress is being made.
“You could argue it is a form of social welfare for farmers rather than a legitimate pest control measure,” he told Yahoo News.
Mr Cox warns Victoria's scalping program is open to rorting, describing it as “poor pest animal management and a waste of public funds”.
“It is far better to direct the funds towards a fox baiting program which will achieve more meaningful population reduction," he said.
Call to replace Boxing Day with Foxing Day
In Victoria, authorities no longer believe they can eradicate foxes.
First introduced to Australia in 1855 for sporting purposes, foxes are now found in all mainland states.
While they took a long time to adjust to their new environment, they soon followed rabbits across the continent.
Dr Guy Ballard from the University of New England said whilst we should be mindful of fox welfare and not be unnecessarily cruel towards them, the species are a “horrible force” which must be suppressed.
On Boxing Day, Dr Ballard turned to Twitter and had a “cheeky crack” in calling for the holiday to be renamed Foxing Day.
“I propose Australia changes (it to) Foxing Day, where we advocate for fox control in the year ahead,” he wrote.
“Who’s on-board? (You can still watch cricket).”
Massive changes in wildlife behaviour if foxes suppressed
Dr Ballard told Yahoo News he, along with other researchers and land managers, have inadvertently dropped the ball when it comes to fox control.
Each adult fox consumes between 300 and 500 grams of food a day, and given most prey species weigh well below this, they’re having a severe impact on wildlife.
From cities to national parks and farms, they can “wreak havoc” on what remains of the natural environment, killing insects, small mammals, birds and even 15kg wallabies.
The suppression of foxes could result in bandicoots returning to lawns in abundance, brushtail possums beginning to hang out on the ground again instead of spending their time “terrified in trees”, and rare bird species flourishing once more.
“(Foxes) have this amazing pressure that they apply on our wildlife all the time,” Dr Ballard said.
‘Because they operate at a time of day when we're not typically active, most people don't know anything about them.”
“While people sleep, foxes are out there having an unsustainable impact on our wildlife and on agriculture too.”
How dingoes could help suppress fox populations
Victoria’s scalping scheme extends to dingoes, which despite being now regarded as a native species, are widely classified by authorities as a pest and branded as wild dogs.
The program pays shooters $10 for each fox scalp and $120 for dingo body parts.
Figures attained by Melbourne Hunt Saboteurs via Freedom of Information reveal that during the 2014-2015 budget period $1.625 million was spent on Victoria’s fox and wild dog bounty scheme.
That number rose to $1.947 million the following year, and dropped down to $1.669 in 2016-2017, likely in line with natural fluctuations in fox abundance.
Given the lack of clarity regarding the program’s effectiveness, Melbourne Hunt Saboteurs spokesperson Liam Barwick believes non-lethal fox control methods should instead be explored.
“Foxes in Australia and Victoria present a problem, but the method of dealing with them isn't working,” he said.
Mr Barwick points to evidence suggesting encouraging apex predators could be effective in suppressing mesopredators like foxes and feral cats.
Some farmers also believe encouraging dingoes onto cattle farms can help maintain healthy kangaroo numbers.
Rather encouraging landholders to scalp dingoes, Mr Barwick would like to see authorities further research into how they can benefit the balance in some Australian ecosystems.
Bounty program a 'waste of life'
Victorian Animal Justice Party MP Andy Meddick backs calls for “kind and effective alternatives” to replace the bounty program, which he estimates has cost the state $17 million since its inception.
His party, which pursues animal protection within Australia's parliamentary system, notes "amazing similarities" between foxes and companion animals like dogs and cats.
They are petitioning Environment Minister Dear Lily D'Ambrosio and Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas to end the scalping scheme.
While acknowledging that foxes damage wildlife and the environment, Mr Meddick questions why Victorian authorities would back a program which has “no long term benefits”.
“The government must acknowledge their responsibility to protect our environment without the use of violence,” he said.
“This cruel bounty is a waste of money and waste of life."
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