A modest proposal to import a notoriously invasive carnivore to eat all our lambs and native wildlife

Unlike Jonathan Swift’s famous suggestion to serve Irish children stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, or even Meijaard and Sheil’s recent call for wealthy countries to reforest their land for the common good – the current proposal to import the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes) into Australia for “private keeping as pets and potential breeding for commercial sale” is unfortunately not an attempt at satire.

via Invasive Animals CRC

Seriously.

Red fox? Private keeping as pets and potential breeding?

Let’s be perfectly clear. The fox is perhaps the most notorious invasive species in Australia, having demonstrated it’s ability to wreak havoc not only on agricultural production (most notably the sheep industry), but also our native wildlife.

Thanks to the introduction of Mr. Fox and the persecution of Australia’s top predator, the dingo, this wily little mesopredator has been implicated in the extinction of around 20 native mammals, and has a habit of predating on small mammals, reptiles and birds – hence it’s listing as a key threatening process [pdf] under federal legislation.

Having done a bit of research on fox management in the past, I’m well aware of the sizable dent made to Australia’s economy through efforts to control their impact – the Invasive Animals CRC cites the estimated annual costs to Australian agriculture and environment as $21 million and $190 million respectively.

Despite the assurances of the proposal [pdf] currently before the Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (under the EPBC Act), the domesticated ‘silver fox’ is still the same species as a red fox, and so are unlikely to:

“…only ever approach an area populated by humans if they are unable to find enough food in the wild”

or:

help(s) the Australian environment for they kill both fully grown and baby rabbits more often than any other prey”

since:

“The Australian habitats where foxes reside have never been affected since the introduction of foxes.”

I’ve always been slightly perplexed over proposals to import potentially catastrophic animals into a country with such a fragile environment as Australia. Only recently there was a proposal to bring in ‘Savannah’ cats (domestic and Serval cat hybrids) into the country. Thankfully the then- Environment Minister Garrett knocked that proposal on it’s head.

Through some of the conversations I’ve had with animal rights campaigners (for example, some who disagree with any form of lethal control for invasive species) it seems that the ‘cute’ factor usually gets in the way of the understanding of some very basic ecological principles – to the point where exaggerations will be made to demonstrate how an invasive species can actually be good for the environment (see quotes above).

Is our fascination with animals that are fundamentally incompatible with Australia’s environment the ecological equivalent of a cultural cringe? Perhaps this is another reason why keeping native wildlife as pets isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Although it seems unlikely the proposal will even see the light of day, it’s worth sending at least a short comment (by 20 October 2011) outlining why more foxes in Australia is a bad idea.

(Thanks to Ayesha Tulloch for alerting me to this in the first place.)