Life without rabbits

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This week at Macquarie Island: 3 February 2012

By Claudia Babirat

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been making forays into the field to monitor how the island vegetation has been faring in the absence of rabbits.

All the island is a lot lusher now that the rabbits are almost gone, but there are certain pockets that are looking better than anywhere else. Why? Because they are surrounded by a rabbit-proof fence.

The first rabbit exclosures were erected as early as the 1960s, but the more recent ones were put in around 2007/08. There are 41 of them around the island, from Handspike to Hurd Point, and wildlife rangers monitor them on an annual basis. It’s the same each year – a series of photographs are taken of each plot, both inside and outside the fenced area.

Researchers on the mainland use some of these photographs to establish rates of vegetation recovery, but the results are obvious even to a layperson: inside the plots plants are flourishing, outside they are not. A comparison of the same plot over time shows that the rate of plant recovery is equally dramatic.

Hopefully this means that, now that the rabbits’ days are hopefully numbered, the flora will come back with a vengeance. Some of the plots contain relatively rare plants, like the orchid Nematocerus dienemum and the fern Polystichum vestitum, which will hopefully act as a source of seeds for new growth outside of their rabbit-proof confines.

Claudia taking a photo of a rabbit exclosure
Claudia taking a photo of a rabbit exclosure
(Photo: Nancye Williams)
Macquarie Island cabbage in a sea of grasses
Macquarie Island cabbage in a sea of grasses
(Photo: Claudia Babirat)
Meg out for a walk to the Handspike exclosures, walking over grasses and Pleurophyllum
Meg out for a walk to the Handspike exclosures
(Photo: Claudia Babirat)
Pleurophyllum hookeri growing profusely
Pleurophyllum hookeri growing profusely
(Photo: Claudia Babirat)
Polystichum fern protected by a rabbit proff fence
Polystichum fern protected by a rabbit proff fence
(Photo: Claudia Babirat)
Sandy Bay rabbit exclosure
Sandy Bay rabbit exclosure
(Photo: Claudia Babirat)
Macquarie Island cabbage refuge on the featherbed
Macquarie Island cabbage refuge on the featherbed
(Photo: Claudia Babirat)