They’re bringing back the bandicoot

A nocturnal feeder, the Southern Browns Bandicoot is notoriously hard to spot. Picture: Mal Legg

The Southern Brown Bandicoot is endangered nationally and under threat in Victoria, but a significant population has found a surprising haven among farmlands on the Kooweerup swamp. With its survival by no means assured, ANDREW CANTWELL takes a look at efforts to bring the bandicoot back.

“It can be good practice to leave a little bit of land aside for conservancy, depending on the enterprise.”

The Southern Brown Bandicoot doesn’t have the iconic Aussie look of the kookaburra, the koala or the kangaroo.

Looking something like a cross between a rat and a rabbit, neither does it share the quirky strangeness of the platypus or the echidna. No bank note or coin carries its rather ordinary image.

It doesn’t even have the annoyance factor of the possum or the magpie to draw attention to itself.

But – like many of our more timid native species – it is increasingly rare.

An omnivore living on worms, bugs, roots and fungi, it once roamed at will on bush, scrub and marsh lands near the coast from WA to Victoria and up into NSW.

But European settlement, with its clear-fell agriculture, and the consequent introduction of predatory species, notably the fox, the dog and the cat, have taken their toll.

And then there are the road kills, the effects of bushfire and other land clearing fires, and a short lifespan of about four years.

The Southern Brown Bandicoot is now a nationally endangered species – and listed as under threat in Victoria, which has a reasonable population compared with other states – preserved in pockets of habitat that remain.

One of those pockets is in the Cardinia region, at Kooweerup. A few more extend around Western Port to the Bass and South Gippsland coast and west onto the Mornington Pensinsula. A good population also exists around the Cranbourne Botanical Gardens.

Sadly, for the bandicoot, it seems its survival instinct is only a few steps up the ladder from the infamous lemming. It nests in grassy hollows at ground level – convenient for predators. It hunts by scent but reportedly ignores the scent of predators. At the same time, it shies away from others of its kind.

This combination of leavings itself in harm’s way while eschewing mating opportunities is not a winning recipe for continuance of the line.

So it’s left to others to go in to bat for the muddled marsupial.

In the Western Port region, that help comes in the form of local landholders and Landcare groups, conservation groups and – significantly – the Western Port Biosphere Foundation, which holds UNESCO recognition.

A recovery project for the bandicoot was one of the first projects started by the biosphere foundation when it was chartered in 2003.

Working in the biosphere group’s favour are the robust fertility of the bandicoot and a ready adaptability to different habitats.

The gestation cycle is about two weeks, with a further two months spent in the pouch. Litters can be as large as six, of which a few should live to maturity, and the female can conceive soon after, permitting a few litters each year.

Despite these the bandicoot’s survival is far from assured – four other species of bandicoot once prevalent in Victoria are now extinct in the wild.

This adds a sense of urgency to the work of the biosphere foundation, which relies on a co-operative approach to pursue its aims.

Broadly, the biosphere’s efforts are aimed at controlling predators effectively; getting accurate information on bandicoot numbers, habitat and movements, as well as predator hot-spots; and – importantly – retaining existing habitat, and engaging others to assist in the creation of habitat linkages between populations, to retain a diverse gene pool.

These linkages are significant, as this aim relies on creating corridors on land outside of reserves, parks and other state-controlled land.

What this means in effect is that farmers and other landholders are at the forefront of efforts to save the Southern Brown Bandicoot.

Biosphere foundation executive officer Greg Hunt believes it’s crucial for farmers and other large-scale land holders to give consideration to biodiversity on their lands.

Mr Hunt said last week that an important part of the work of the biosphere was in talking to farmers to show how native animals could live side-by-side with human needs and the production of food and fibre.

Biodiversity could readily be worked in to overall farm management plans, he indicated.

“There are some good farmers doing terrific stuff,” Mr Hunt said.

“Some can tell what paddocks their cattle have been grazing because of the production at milking time.”

That kind of smart management could work in the bandicoot’s favour through reserved land, shelterbelts, and careful selection and reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides.

“When spraying, don’t take out the food sources,” Mr Hunt said.

“It can be good practice to leave a little bit of land aside for conservancy, depending on the enterprise,” he said.

As well as providing feed and nesting spots for the bandicoot, other native animals and birds taking refuge in conserved land could add in a low-impact way to farmers’ insect control measures.

The bandicoots’ burrowing can also assist in aerating and keeping soils friable and assisting nutrient recycling and water penetration.

The biosphere foundation has produced a leaflet on the bandicoot population at Kooweerup, detailing its poor prospects if left alone, and encouraging simple measures to improve the chances of not just surviving, but bouncing back.

These include the planting of grasses and shrubs in shelterbelts; fox control measures; keeping dogs and cats inside property boundaries; and not leaving pet food out that could attract feral pests.

For those who wish a more hands-on involvement, options are open for the protection of remnant vegetation, planting new areas of native vegetation, building nesting boxes, volunteering with Landcare groups at community planting days, reporting sightings and keeping friends and neighbours engaged with conservation efforts.

Farmers should also avoid organo-phosphates, which build up in the soil and the food chain.

As well as ongoing talks with farmers and Landcare groups, the biosphere has recently undertaken a program of placing remote motion-triggered cameras, in order to quantify the number of bandicoots in selected areas – as well as the number of predators.

This work would form an evidence base to both review the recovery program’s effectiveness and inform further projects and conservancy efforts, Mr Hunt said.

The foundation is also keen to see the further intrusion of residential land into habitat areas closed off. The current Urban Growth Boundary should be fixed and efforts resisted to develop outside the boundary.

“We want people to enjoy the environment,” Mr Hunt said.

“But it’s what comes with them,” he said, referring to the increased number of predatory pets, increased traffic and habitat destruction.

It’s clear that people are both the greatest challenge – and the best hope for the bandicoot’s survival.

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