Feral invasive species pose an urgent and intensifying risk to Australia's natural environmental values, agricultural productivity, and cultural heritage. Throughout this inquiry, the committee has heard of the need for strategic, coordinated, and long-term action to curb the impacts of feral deer, pigs and goats.
At the outset, the committee wishes to recognise that there are many more feral animal species causing negative impacts in Australia than those the committee has been asked to focus on. Even so, the impacts of feral deer, pigs and goats demand specific response from governments, landholders and communities around Australia.
During its inquiry the committee received a great deal of evidence focusing on feral deer, as well as significant evidence on feral pigs, with less focus from submitters and witnesses on feral goats. The committee's conclusions and recommendations are weighted accordingly.
While there have been positive developments announced since the committee commenced this inquiry, in particular the creation of National Coordinator roles dealing with both feral pigs and feral deer, much work is still required in order to bring the impacts of these species under control.
Distribution and impacts of feral deer, pigs and goats
National and regional-level data on the prevalence and impacts of feral deer, pigs and goats is lacking, with much of the existing data either out-of-date or incomplete. Species populations, particularly of deer, appear to be growing rapidly in both total numbers and overall range, with increasing impacts on environmental, agricultural, economic and social values.
Feral deer and pig populations in particular are a major threat to Australia's biodiversity, impacting a wide range of native plant and animal species, including in World Heritage listed sites and areas of national environmental significance. These feral species have the capacity to completely alter the structure of local ecosystems and create irreversible damage, crowding out native fauna and exacerbating other environmental stressors already present in ecological communities.
The impacts of feral populations on agricultural enterprises are substantial, including: grazing and destruction of crops; competing with livestock for food, and in some cases predating livestock; reducing the capacity for alternate land uses (for example, carbon sequestration), and the expenditure of time and money repairing damage and managing the impacts of these species. The estimated annual costs to agricultural businesses from feral deer, pig and goat activities runs into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Feral populations of these species also pose a significant challenge to containing and eradicating exotic diseases, and can spread diseases to both animals and humans. The rapid spread of African Swine Fever across the globe since 2019, which has devastated commercial pig populations in a wide range of countries, has highlighted how vulnerable Australia's domestic herd is to disease outbreaks linked to feral animal populations.
There is a clear need to develop priorities for gathering better data and undertaking species and impact mapping for deer, pigs and goats. This will enable decision makers to understand trends and prioritise better control measures for existing populations, as well as get on top of populations spreading.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, in conjunction with relevant stakeholders, develop national priorities for data gathering to address gaps in knowledge about the prevalence, range and impacts of feral deer, pigs and goats, identify emerging threats and avoid further range extension of these species.
Evidence received by the committee pointed to several areas in definite need of further investment in this regard.
The committee notes that the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) was contracted in mid-2020 to update national population distribution and density maps for feral pigs, supported by information provided by all states and territories, with outcomes of this research to be released by mid-2022. The committee considers that similar updated national mapping should be conducted in relation to feral deer.
Scientific understanding of the impacts of feral deer on the various ecological communities in which they are found in Australia is still poor, due to a historical lack of investment in research in this area. This should be a priority area for future research. The committee notes that ABARES has undertaken relevant studies in the past, for example, An integrated assessment of the impact of wild dogs in Australia, published in 2014. A similar study for feral deer could be a helpful starting point.
Regulatory framework for managing feral species
The committee heard that the current regulatory framework for managing feral deer, pigs and goats is complex and lacks coordination across Australian jurisdictions.
At the Commonwealth level, the Australian Government plays a role in providing national coordination through overarching strategies and through species-specific or site-specific plans, primarily under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The Commonwealth also provides grant funding to individual projects through initiatives, such as the National Landcare Program, many of which are directed to regional Natural Resource Management (NRM) bodies.
State and territory governments have primary responsibility for feral species management, with legislative requirements and on-the-ground management activities varying across jurisdictions. Local government authorities also undertake a variety pest species control programs.
It is clear that greater coordination on feral species management is needed across all levels of government.
The committee is heartened by the establishment of National Management Coordinator roles for both feral pigs and feral deer, with a draft National Feral Pig Action Plan now released and work underway towards a similar national plan for feral deer. These initiatives present an opportunity to drive increased coordination across levels of government, as well as industry and community groups, in the management of these species.
The committee considers that the Australian Government should commit to provide long-term funding to support the implementation of these national plans.
The committee further considers that it would be useful for the national deer and pig coordinators to provide an annual report to Commonwealth, state and territory parliaments on progress made under the national action plans. This will help ensure that there is consistent follow through and accountability in relation to the actions that governments and other stakeholders are taking.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government commit to providing significant long-term funding to support the implementation of the National Feral Pig Action Plan once it is finalised, as well as the proposed National Feral Deer Action Plan.
The committee recommends that the National Feral Pig Management Coordinator and National Deer Management Coordinator each provide an annual report to Commonwealth, state and territory parliaments, outlining progress made under the proposed national action plans.
The committee heard that cross-jurisdictional work in Australia on feral species management is through officer-level intergovernmental forums, primarily the National Biosecurity Committee, and its subcommittee, the Environment and Invasives Committee. These committees have overseen the establishment of the Australian Pest Animal Strategy 2017-2027 and the National Framework for the Management of Established Pests and Diseases of National Significance.
The committee is concerned that these forums appear to create little value in terms of concrete feral species management outcomes. There is a dearth of evidence that the Australian Pest Animal Strategy 2017-2027 is being utilised to inform species control programs.
In more than four years since the National Framework for the Management of Established Pests and Diseases of National Significance was agreed, it appears that no species have yet been listed as established pests and diseases of national significance under the framework.
The committee considers that the Commonwealth and states and territories should review the operation of these committees in relation to feral species management to ensure that these intergovernmental forums are operating effectively.
The committee recommends that the Commonwealth, states and territories review the role of the National Biosecurity Committee and Environment and Invasives Committee in respect of feral species management, to ensure that these forums are operating effectively to help coordinate and drive species management outcomes across Australia.
EPBC Act processes
At the Commonwealth level, the main mechanisms in the EPBC Act in relation to feral species are through Key Threatening Process (KTPs) listings, and linked Threat Abatement Plans (TAPs). The committee heard that these processes are currently ineffective in driving practical outcomes in relation to feral pigs, goats and deer.
Evidence received by the committee on this issue concurs with the recent findings of the Samuel review of the EPBC Act, which reported that the current systems for managing threats under the EPBC Act, including the process of listing KTPs and developing TAPs, 'are not achieving their intent', with many environmental threats in Australia worsening. The review stated that 'strategic national plans should be developed for 'big-ticket, nationally pervasive issues such as the management of feral animals and adaptation of the environment to climate change'.
While the recommendations of the Samuel review are still being considered by government, the committee considers that some immediate changes in relation to KTPs and TAPs are warranted. In particular, the TAPs for feral pigs and goats need urgent review and renewed focus on implementation. In respect of the feral pigs TAP, this review can complement the work of the National Feral Pig Management Coordinator in delivering the National Feral Pig Action Plan.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government undertake an immediate review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) Threat Abatement Plans for feral pigs and feral goats, in light of their perceived ineffectiveness.
There is no standalone listing for feral deer as a KTP under the EPBC Act; however, the impacts of feral deer are recognised under the overarching key threatening process listing Novel biota and their impact on biodiversity, which came into effect in 2013. There is no TAP listing associated with this KTP.
Given the rapid spread of deer populations in various parts of Australia in recent years, and concomitant environmental and other impacts, the committee considers that strong consideration should be given to a standalone KTP listing for feral deer, accompanied by a comprehensive TAP. Consideration should be given to how this will interact with the national feral deer action plan being developed by the National Feral Deer Management Coordinator.
The committee recommends that a standalone Key Threatening Process listing for feral deer under the EPBC Act be adopted, accompanied by a Threat Abatement Plan, to elevate the focus on controlling deer impacts.
In light of the evidence received about the broader ineffectiveness of the KTP and TAP processes under the EPBC Act, the committee considers that a starting point for reform in this area should be additional reporting to Parliament on KTPs and monitoring and management efforts being undertaken under the relevant TAPs. This will provide, at a minimum, better information on which to guide further reform.
The committee recommends that the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment report annually to Parliament on the status of all Key Threatening Processes (KTPs) listed under the EPBC Act, along with information on what monitoring and management activities have been undertaken under Threat Abatement Plans associated with KTPs.
Additional regulatory measures in relation to feral deer
While feral goats and pigs are recognised as established pests or feral animals in all Australian jurisdictions, deer species are not treated as uniformly; in three states, deer species have full or partial protection as game species under the relevant state legislation and regulations.
From the evidence received, the committee understands that many witnesses, particularly in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, see an urgent need to address increasing numbers of deer and feel a lack of support from those state governments.
The committee notes that these jurisdictions have announced some measures in relation to feral deer over the course of the committee's inquiry.
In August 2019 the NSW Government removed requirements for private landholders seeking to control deer on their property to hold a game hunting license, meaning these landholders can control deer on their property in the same way as other species, such as rabbits, foxes, pigs and goats. This is a welcome measure that has made deer control significantly more straightforward.
The recently announced Victorian Deer Control Strategy seeks to make it easier for public land managers, such as Parks Victoria, to control deer, however does not propose to reclassify the major species of deer found in Victoria as pest species. Similarly, the Tasmanian Government has made recent changes to its Crop Protection Permit system which is designed to give landholders greater ability to control deer on their land, but these changes do not declare deer as a pest species and still fall short of what landholders who presented to the committee consider is necessary.
The committee believes that declaring deer as a pest species will enable more appropriate and coordinated control actions to be undertaken, and provide symbolic recognition of the increasing damage caused by deer to environmental and agricultural values across Australia. It will not limit the ability of recreational hunting of deer to continue in states where this occurs.
It is crucial that both private and public landholders can take appropriate measures to manage feral deer. In particular, park managers need the ability to control deer adequately in national parks without unnecessary restrictions.
The committee recommends that all Australian jurisdictions make any necessary changes to their existing legislative and regulatory frameworks to:
ensure that wild deer are treated as an environmental pest;
maximise the ability of landholders to control feral deer on their land; and
maximise the ability of park managers to control feral deer in World Heritage Areas and National Parks.
Deer control in areas of environmental significance
The committee heard that, while eliminating feral deer is not a feasible goal in Australia, deer management efforts must include specific initiatives aimed at protecting Australia's World Heritage Areas (WHA), areas of national environmental significance, and national biodiversity hotspots to the greatest extent possible.
Some of these areas are already suffering impacts from feral deer, and action to reduce numbers and impacts of deer in these areas is vital. In other areas that are free or nearly free of deer, concerted efforts must be taken to prevent the introduction and spread of deer.
One example raised in evidence to the committee is that of the Tasmanian Wilderness WHA, where it is likely that deer have started to make incursions, in small numbers, into the eastern side of the WHA, but have not yet become widespread. It is imperative that governments work collaboratively in these areas to protect Australia's most precious environmental assets.
The committee recommends that Commonwealth, state and territory governments should commit to eliminating feral deer populations in World Heritage Areas, areas of national environmental significance, and national biodiversity hotspots.
Commercial harvesting of feral deer
The committee heard mixed views about the impact of commercial harvesting operations in the context of feral deer management.
Some stakeholders pointed to the ability of commercial harvesting operations to assist in reducing feral populations, while others were sceptical of its value as a management tool, pointing to research showing that commercialisation carries the risk of greater de facto protection of harvested species, leading to higher average densities.
While feral deer can currently be harvested commercially in some jurisdictions, including NSW and Victoria, this is not the case in Tasmania. The committee is of the view that, while commercial harvesting will not in and of itself control feral population numbers, and there are risks associated with becoming reliant on the maintenance of wild deer populations for commercial purposes, an overall deer management strategy may nonetheless include a role for some commercial harvesting.
The committee recommends that all Australian jurisdictions implement frameworks to support the commercial harvesting of feral deer as part of an overall deer management strategy.
Control Methods for feral deer, pigs and goats
The committee recognises that, with the current control options and species numbers, eradication of deer, pigs and goats is not feasible except on islands and in small and isolated locations and localised areas. In this context, the committee commends the successful programs undertaken on Kangaroo Island which, while undertaken on an island with the objective of eradication, provides a useful example of how to run successful programs by reviewing elements, such as governance, funding, methods, coordination and engagement with the community.
The committee acknowledges that the most effective methods will be specific to the environment and species. For example, 'Judas goats' worked very well on Kangaroo Island but 'Judas pigs' have not been as successful there. However, according to a survey from landholders, specially trained pig hunting dogs are proving to be more successful with the terrain on Kangaroo Island.
Managing deer in peri-urban areas
The committee believes that the increasing numbers of deer in urban and peri‑urban areas require special consideration as shooting is a problematic option in those environments. Local councils were asking for assistance and guidance to work in the peri-urban environment. The committee agrees that support in the form of best practice guidelines and protocols are required for areas such as these where deer management expertise is lacking as well as ways to ensure competency for the use of firearms in this environment. Local councils would prefer to see an effective control method suited to their environment.
The committee commends the Victorian Government's recent commitment of $1 million towards the development and implementation of a Peri-urban Melbourne Deer Control Plan, which should be a valuable resource in guiding best practice for peri-urban deer management more broadly.
The role of recreational hunting
Issues around recreational hunting and its role were raised in many submissions. First, the competing interests, in many cases, of hunters and landowners, particularly in relation to deer, were noted in the context of whether recreational hunting can be an effective control measure. As described to the committee the objectives of many recreational hunters are to stalk an animal over a period of time, achieve a clean kill and to use the meat for private consumption. Hunting in this way, recreational hunters do not shoot many animals and the committee heard they can have a focus on trophy specimens, rather than females thereby having little impact on the reduction of numbers. Recreational hunters also, naturally, want there to continue to be a supply of deer for them to hunt in accessible populations.
The committee notes there is quite a difference between hunting a small number of animals on the weekend and pest animal control. Contrast the hunting process described above with the objectives of landowners dealing with large numbers of pest animals who want them removed from their property as quickly and humanely as possible.
The committee notes evidence of cooperative arrangements with some property owners engaging recreational shooters several times a year to manage pest animals on their land. While this alignment of interests may suit localised areas where populations are lower, the overwhelming evidence to the committee was that recreational hunting is not an effective standalone control measure.
The committee was provided with figures showing that, in order to have an effect on numbers, depending on species and conditions, between 34 and 52 per cent of the deer population, and between 55 and 70 per cent of the feral pig population need to be killed each year and 35 per cent for goats. The committee agrees that recreational hunters are simply unable to remove the numbers of pest animals required in order to keep populations under control and address further spread.
Utilising recreational hunting as part of control programs
The committee notes the evidence showing economic benefits of recreational hunting must be weighed up against the costs to landholders, agriculture and the environment outlined in Chapter 2. Submitters were very clear that historical notions of deer as a valued species do not reflect the reality of high numbers in many locations and the damage they cause. Submitters used the words 'plague' and 'invasion' in relation to deer and also advocated the need for a media campaign to convey the right message to the public.
The committee agrees that recreational hunting is a tool but not a solution. The committee notes that while some localised positive outcomes and arrangements are possible, in terms of population control of feral or feral game animals, recreational hunting should represent only one element of coordinated control programs. The committee acknowledges that recreational hunting and control programs/pest status can coexist; for example, Queensland has deer and pigs designated as pest species and hunting continues through a regulated process.
The committee also notes the evidence that professional shooters are proficient at shooting animals humanely. In a coordinated program recreational hunters could work with professional shooters to increase their skills.
Elements of successful feral species control programs
Evidence to the committee overwhelmingly saw a coordinated, consistent, landscape scale, nil-tenure approach as the key to minimising the impacts of these feral species. The committee agrees that management action needs to be undertaken at a scale appropriate to the population being managed to be effective.
The committee agrees with the evidence from successful programs that they need to be well coordinated. There is a role for all stakeholders including: governments, landholders, recreational shooters, commercial industry, professional shooters, traditional owners and communities. In order to undertake a landscape scale project, having stakeholders in an area working towards the same goal is vital to make the best use of current methods and resources.
The committee notes that, when dealing with highly mobile pests with extensive distribution, it makes sense for a nil-tenure approach to be applied in order to maximise the effectiveness of control programs. All stakeholders need to be engaged to design effective programs with measurable outcomes, achieve coordination and take a cooperative approach. There also needs to be community engagement to ensure the program and objectives are understood. It was also clear that such programs take time and therefore need to be consistent and well resourced.
The committee notes the desire for there to be more options for the control of deer but until new methods are developed the best usage of current methods is to coordinate them to achieve specific objectives, whether that be eradication in certain areas, control and limiting spread. To this end, given the stakeholders' to coordinate, the need for programs to be well planned and measured as well as sustained over a period, the committee is pleased to see the recent appointment of a national deer management coordinator, building on the existing presence of a National Wild Dog Management Coordinator and a National Feral Pig Coordinator. Another important factor for success highlighted in evidence was the need for the community to be engaged and also the ability to incorporate trials of new control methods in a broader program. The committee sees such a position as vital to bring all these elements together and facilitate best practice.
The committee recommends that the national feral species coordinators appointed to date (for wild dogs, feral pigs and deer) meet regularly to review successful programs and share best practice in relation to measurement, coordination, control methods, methods of engagement with stakeholders and community messaging.
Community engagement and education
The committee heard there is a lack of knowledge in the community of pest animals and consequently there is a need for a community engagement and community education to ensure the effectiveness of control measures. The successful programs outlined to the committee had an element of community engagement and education. The committee considers there is a need for the national species coordinators to work with governments and other stakeholders to develop educational resources and initiatives in this area that can be adapted and applied at the local level.
The committee recommends that the national coordinators work with Commonwealth, state and territory governments and other stakeholders to develop community education initiatives that address the knowledge gaps in the community about feral species impacts.
Model Codes of Practice and Standard Operating Procedures for feral species control
It is the position of the committee that control programs should employ best practice in terms of the humane treatment of animals. The committee supports the development of a model code of practice for the humane control of feral deer (with associated Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)), as well as an update of the current Model Codes of Practice for feral pigs and goats and SOPs in relation to deer, pigs and goats to ensure best practice.
The committee was pleased to be advised that the NSW Government is in the process of updating its Model Codes of Practice and Standard Operating Procedures for many species, which it will bring to the National Biosecurity Committee for consideration. This will include a Model Code of Practice and SOPs for deer, expected to be published in early-mid 2021.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government:
support the implementation of the forthcoming Model Code of Practice for the humane control of feral deer, with associated Standard Operating Procedures; and
update the current Model Codes of Practice for feral pigs and goats and relevant SOPs in relation to pigs and goats to ensure best practice.
Development of new control methods and other research priorities
Witnesses called for more research into new and more humane control methods, stressing the need to focus on identifying a humane bait for deer with a species-specific delivery method.
The committee notes the work undertaken to get approval for the use of an immuno-contraceptive to manage small deer populations in areas where shooting, trapping and fencing are not appropriate. However it was also noted that fertility control is an expensive option and not suitable for landscape scale application. Despite these restrictions the committee would welcome another tool that could be deployed in the event that the circumstances are appropriate.
The committee also notes the advice of complementary new technology which could be deployed, such as the use of drones and camera technology, and the potential for people experienced with particular species of animals to contribute to the development of new tools.
The committee notes the methods used will be specific to the environment and species and developing more tools will assist to address a variety of circumstances. To that end it is also important for the lessons from successful programs to be widely shared as well as relevant learnings from deer management overseas.
The committee supports ongoing Australian Government investment in cutting edge research into feral species management, through bodies such as the CSIRO and the university sector.
The committee notes that the Commonwealth's five-year core funding commitment to the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions, which is heavily involved in research projects relating to best practice management of deer, pigs and goats, is due to expire in 2022. The committee considers it important that the Commonwealth commit to providing a second, long-term funding commitment towards the ongoing research activities of CISS, as part of the Commonwealth's broader commitment to dealing with invasive species.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government commit funding towards a second long-term grant agreement for the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (CISS), to provide for ongoing research activities by CISS beyond the expiration of the current agreement in 2022.
Long term control program funding
It is clear that coordinated programs need to be well funded over the long‑term to be successful. The committee heard that the current approach to funding control and management programs is ad-hoc, often short-term, and uncoordinated between levels of government.
As further work is done to identify priority control programs, particularly through the National Feral Pig Action Plan and proposed National Feral Deer Action Plan, it is incumbent on government to ensure that these priority programs are well funded over the long-term to be successful.
The committee recommends that as priority control programs for feral deer, pigs and goats are identified, Commonwealth, state and territory governments should ensure that adequate long-term funding is appropriated to enable successful implementation of these programs. This will include programs developed under the National Feral Pig Action Plan and proposed National Feral Deer Action Plan.
Data collection on agricultural landholder impacts and management
Evidence focussed on the need to monitor control efforts and to use accurate data to develop control programs with clear objectives which then have their effectiveness measured. The committee heard about and commends the work underway in many areas to include measures to judge the effectiveness of control programs. In order to add to this data collection at the landholder level, the committee sees value in updating the Pest animal and Weed Management Survey undertaken by ABARES in 2016 which presents results on topics including: level of awareness of pest animals; impacts of pest animals and pest animal management activities.
The committee recommends that the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences conduct an updated Pest Animal and Weed Management Survey to provide current information on pest species impacts on agricultural values and control measures being undertaken by landholders.
Some submitters to the committee suggested that rather than the current ad hoc approach to funding arrangements for invasive species management, the Productivity Commission should assess the long-term funding needed to effectively address major invasive animal threats to the environment, including feral deer, pigs and goats. The committee agrees that this would create a significantly stronger evidence base for long-term funding.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government direct the Productivity Commission to review the costings and funding models necessary to appropriately manage invasive species in Australia.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young