Cluster fence expansion poses opportunities for threatened fauna

Vast tracts of exclusion fencing for wild dogs across northern Australia are providing opportunities for the recovery of threatened fauna on rangeland grazing properties.

University of Southern Queensland Senior Research Fellow (Wildlife Management) Dr Benjamin Allen said cluster fencing had expanded rapidly within Queensland with the area of properties behind predator proof fencing increasing from zero a decade ago to around 200,000 square kilometres in 2023.

Dr Allen said the largest rural infrastructure development in 100 years in Queensland for removing wild dogs, feral pigs, and feral goats was ideal for testing the removal of key predators and competitors on threatened species. 

He said the large tracts of canid-free land with low feral cat populations would suit threatened species capable of living side-by-side with livestock.

“It is well worth exploring the opportunities for large scale conservation of native species on livestock properties. We often have an over-supply of threatened species in captive breeding programs struggling to find homes, and cluster fenced properties are at the very least a halfway home where invasive predators are being managed alongside primary production,” he said. 

Dr Allen outlined the conservation opportunities arising on livestock land when key predators and competitors are removed at the Wild Dog Management Symposium at Armidale, NSW, on March 14-16.

He said threatened fauna recovery opportunities could be substantial on agricultural land.

Based on the 105 fenced areas present in 2019 in Queensland, each fenced area was home to an average of nine threatened species, with the exclusion fencing removing at least one of the threats facing 78 per cent of those species.

“Predator fencing is rapidly increasing with threatened fauna recovery opportunities possible – it won’t suit all our threatened species but there is plenty of suitable habitat on these private properties that could support quite a few, particularly the larger of the threatened mammals,” Dr Allen said. 

“Conservation organisations often see agriculture as the enemy, but farmers are doing conservation on scales they cannot do – these massive cluster fences can achieve biodiversity benefits and grow populations of threatened species.

“There is at least the potential for three quarters of these species to benefit from the removal of wild dogs and foxes on these places – that is worth investigating.

“We are spending tens of millions of dollars to put predator fences around areas the size of a postage stamp (conservation areas), while you have landholders doing a similar thing over 200,000 square kilometres without a lot of assistance. We could really harness some biodiversity benefits here if we do just a little bit of work in this space.”

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has assisted with the development of a list of priorities for rewilding threatened fauna on cluster fenced livestock properties in western Queensland.

These include: 

  • Establishing partnerships between interested stakeholders to advance in situ conservation opportunities.
  • Obtaining a clearer understanding of current biodiversity values or assets, starting with detailed threat monitoring in high-priority locations.
  • Explore the translocation potential of key threatened species and the opportunities for incorporating cat-proof fencing designs. 

“Given the scale we are operating at with cluster fences and predator control, a scale that conservation agencies can only dream of, if we get this right, we can make real tangible benefits towards threatened species recovery,” Dr Allen said. 

“This is the story we are not talking about enough.”

A member of the committee overseeing applications for the Queensland Feral Pest Initiative funded cluster fences, National Wild Dog Management Coordinator Greg Mifsud said the increasing focus on biodiversity credits and sustainable markets opened opportunities for threatened species conservation within cluster fencing.

“These clusters are generating positive environmental changes benefiting not just small mammals like wallabies and dunnarts but also reptiles and ground nesting birds,” Mr Mifsud said.

Funding was provided by the Queensland and Federal Government with six regions receiving Queensland Feral Pest Initiative funding which collectively covers one-third of Queensland.

With a target of 8120km of cluster fencing, the initiative is 98 per cent completed and incorporates 454 properties in 80 clusters.

These are protecting 5 million hectares, generating $9.81 million in direct wages and 163.5 new jobs in agriculture. 

Fences constructed under the Queensland Feral Pest Initiative complement the many additional fences being constructed privately.

Mr Mifsud said many landholders took a lot of care not to fence in drainage lines and creeks to maintain connectivity for larger wildlife species but there was a real opportunity to see how the smaller more unique species already present within clusters were fairing and to add others where suitable. 

“I do think these cluster fences will have significant biodiversity benefit particularly in removing wild dogs, feral cats, foxes and feral pigs preying on a whole range of critical weight range species.” 

For more information on the impacts of wild dogs on native species click here.