Research into feral cat behaviour could change prescribed burn management

Photo Wild cats kill an average of seven small animals a day photo supplied by Australian Wildlife Conservancy

A new study into the movement and behaviour of feral cats could have implications for the way bushfires are managed across the country.

There is an “unholy alliance” between feral cats and wildfire, according to Australian Wildlife Conservancy chief executive Atticus Fleming.

The large research project, undertaken by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, involved radio tracking feral cats in wildlife sanctuaries in the Kimberly region in Western Australia and Cape York Peninsula in Queensland.

After being tracked by feral cat detector dogs, more than 50 cats were fitted with GPS collars and some were fitted with small cameras.

Mr Fleming said one of the key findings in the Kimberley was that each feral cat was killing seven native animals each day, on average.

“With the GPS data we obtained, we could dig a little deeper and we could see where they were killing and where they were most successful,” he said.

“In areas where there was overgrazing from feral herbivores or big wildfires, and lots of ground cover had been removed, that’s where feral cats would go to hunt.

“That’s where they were successful.”

The study found that in sparse, open landscapes affected by grazing or wildfire, 80 per cent of feral cat hunts were successful.

But in denser landscapes that were in good condition, only 20 per cent of their hunts were successful.

“It reinforces the need to get your fire management right … getting your prescribed burning done and enough of it done so you can avoid the big wildfires,” Mr Fleming said.

“Where there’s a wildfire you’ll see feral cats travelling from their home range for 10, 15 kilometres to get to the edge of that fire scar, and mop up all of the little native animals that have been effectively marooned by the fire.”

Fire management not a silver bullet

The findings of the study suggest reducing wildfires could reduce feral cat populations, but Mr Fleming admitted it was not the silver bullet conservationists were looking for.

“What we’re still looking for is that strategy or formula that will allow us to remove cats from the landscape, because that’s what we really ought to be aiming for,” he said.

“We are in the position where cats are having this massive impact and we don’t have the long-term answer.”

Australian Wildlife Conservancy footage shows a feral cat catching and eating small animals. It may be upsetting for some people.

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