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Native species thrive on Curtis Island after removal of feral animals

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Native species thrive on Curtis Island after removal of feral animals

To locals on Curtis Island off the central Queensland coast, it’s not unusual to see wild horses roaming the beach, bushland or even through the streets of the small township of Southend.

“To us they’re just part and parcel of the island,” Kerry Freney said.

“You’ve got the ocean, you’ve got the scenery, the beaches, and you’ve got the brumbies and the rose.”

While striking to see, the horses are part of a feral animal problem on the southern Great Barrier Reef island, according to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS).

“Feral animals cause an extensive amount of damage to key habitats, to critical species, like the yellow chat and the flatback turtles,” said Damon Shearer, senior officer of the QPWS Capricorn Coast Management Unit.

Damon wearing his khaki qpws uniform, writing on a clipboard, stunning clear water, sand behind.
Damon Shearer says the removal of feral animals has brought “phenomenal results”.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

While some horses remain on the island, about 15 kilometers off the coast at Gladstone, their numbers have significantly reduced since the introduction of a feral animal control program.

A Department of Environment and Science (DES) spokesperson said feral animals, including horses, cats, foxes, dogs, pigs and cattle, spread diseases and weeds, trampled vegetation, damaged wetlands and preyed on a range of native wildlife, including turtle clutches.

They said the control program involved aerial shooting, which was conducted by experienced members of staff from helicopters.

The spokesperson added that QPWS “complies with standard operating procedures and codes of practice to ensure animal welfare requirements are met” and the public was notified before shootings took place.

An island in the distance with blue water in the foreground of the photo
Curtis Island is Queensland’s second largest and home to a diverse range of flora and fauna.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

‘Incredible transformation’

Mr Shearer said the removal of feral animals had produced “phenomenal results” in restoring the island’s diverse array of flora and fauna.

Over the past four years, rangers have noted a significant increase in the endangered Capricorn yellow cat population, after the removal of hoofed animals resulted in significant vegetation regeneration.

DES research shows the species’ population was down to single digits on the island between 2005 and 2011 due to the impacts of feral animals and the ongoing drought.

But yellow chats recorded their highest numbers in the 2021-22 recording period at 73.

Little yellow bird standing on a blade of grass
The yellow cat’s numbers are improving after the removal of pests.(Supplied: Bob Black)

“The pigs were doing an incredible amount of damage to the reed beds in the north, which is the critical habitat for the yellow chat,” Mr Shearer said.

“Pretty much every year that area was getting turned over and it was just turned to mud.

“Now it’s a thriving wetland environment, not only for the yellow cats, but also insects and reptiles, migratory birds that come in … it’s been an incredible transformation.”

The department’s research also shows there has been minimal flatback turtle clutch loss from predators such as foxes, wild dogs and feral pigs through the targeted QPWS pest control.

A sign in front of shrubs reads Curtis Island National Park and another reads south end.
Curtis Island is made up of wind-sheared scrublands, diverse birdlife and pristine beaches.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

Education key to understanding

While some people on Curtis Island support the pest management program, others would like to see the animals left alone.

Linda Strickland has been coming to Curtis Island since she was a teenager and has fond memories of the horses walking through the town.

“Some of the wildlife should be just left alone; the brumbies and the cattle, we had a lot of cattle,” Ms Strickland said.

“I don’t really think it’s as big of an issue as what [QPWS] are making out that it is.”

A herd of horses walks along a salt flat surrounded by trees.
Feral horses along with cattle, foxes, dogs and pigs are targeted as part of the control program.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

Justine Shaw from the Queensland University of Technology works on the ecology and management of Antarctic and island ecosystems, and said while culling invasive species could be controversial, there were major long-term benefits.

“No-one likes to see animals being killed, and that’s one of the challenges in invasive species culling,” Dr. Shaw said.

“One of the things that helps people understand the benefits of doing these controls is, we’ve seen from many other islands around Australia and around the world, that if the commitment is made to get rid of those invasive species, the benefits to native animals and vegetation are huge.

“While it’s uncomfortable for culling to occur, the long-term gains are enormous.

“It’s really important that we don’t lose sight of the end prize.”

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