Sights set on feral cats

A DRAFT plan to tackle one of the country’s most invasive and devastating feral animals has been released.

The Federal Government is seeking feedback on the  updated plan for feral cats.

Professor Sarah Legge, who contributed to the draft plan  and is a member of the Biodiversity Council, said this was an important and ambitious plan to take serious action on one of the greatest threats to Australia’s native wildlife.

“The environmental toll from feral and roaming pet cats cannot be understated,” she said.

“They are responsible for the deaths of an estimated  two billion native mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs every year and have driven over 25 of our native species to extinction.”

Invasive Species Council advocacy manager Jack Gough said it was time for governments to step up with funding, focus and reform that matches the seriousness of this threat to the country’s wildlife.

He said the plan highlighted  opportunities around island eradications and supporting indigenous rangers and the need for legislation and policies to enable effective cat control and responsible pet ownership. Mr Gough said at a minimum, all state and territory governments should declare feral cats to be pests, support all appropriate control tools and develop their feral cat plans.

In Tasmania feral cats also have a huge impact on the state’s sheep industry.

Tasmania’s feral cat population has one of the highest levels of toxoplasmosis infection in the world.

A CSIRO study in 2014 revealed that more than 84 per cent of the state’s feral and stray cat population was infected with the parasite.

Each year thousands of lambs in Tasmania are prematurely aborted after  pregnant ewes are exposed to the Toxoplasma gondii parasite via cat faeces on pastures and sometimes hay where feral cats have been.

Toxoplasmosis can be caught by humans. In pregnant women it can cause abortion, deformity and illness in newborn babies. It can cause  illness with  headache and flu-like symptoms, damage to the retina and may affect mental health.

Cats also spread sarco-cystosis, which can cause lesions throughout the sheep’s body. It is usually detected after slaughter with the carcasses downgraded, causing significant financial losses.

 It is estimated that the two diseases cost the Tasmanian sheep industry as much as $2 million annually.

Tasmanian sheep producers Ben and Barb McBride  have seen first hand the impact that toxoplasmosis can cause in their  operation at Beechford in the state’s North-East.

They run a highly productive lamb breeding operation on their property The Currie.

They run a flock of about 3000 ewes and also calve about 210 cows each year.

Mr McBride said scanning  their ewe flock each year showed multiples around 85 per cent.

He  said in 2015 they were hit with a large number of losses  in late pregnancy.  That year he estimates they lost about 25 per cent or about 700 lambs.

He said testing revealed the cause was toxoplasmosis.

Since then, they have noticed a pattern where every few years they are hit with larger losses of lambs in their young ewes, which do not have immunity to the disease.

They lose 5 to 10 per cent of lambs on average.

Mrs McBride said while lambs aborted early due to toxoplasmosis were easy to detect, lambs carried close to full term could look  normal and it would be easy to attribute losses to something else.

She said anyone handling dead lambs needed to be extremely cautious to avoid being potentially infected.

The McBrides run a regular trapping program on the farm.

“It’s probably something most farmers should do,” Mr McBride said.

“I’ve probably killed about 120 here in the last few years. It sounds like a lot but, there are cats everywhere.”

He said a lack of vaccines for the disease was frustrating.

“If we could vaccinate against it, we would, they can in New Zealand,” he said.