A leading CQUniveristy researcher said cattle may hold the answer to rehoming Australian natives to their pre-colonisation habitats. PICTURE: ZOE PHILLIPS
A leading CQUniveristy researcher said cattle may hold the answer to rehoming Australian natives to their pre-colonisation habitats. PICTURE: ZOE PHILLIPS

CQ cattle could hold answer to rehoming native animals

Central Queensland cattle could hold the answer on how to reintroduce native Australian animals to their pre-colonisation habitats.

A CQUniversity researcher hopes grazing cattle can help with the process that he coined ‘rewilding’.

Rewilding is the restoration of self-sustaining ecosystems, while minimising human intervention, to return an area to its natural state and promote threatened species to thrive.

CQUniversity Adjunct Professor Iain Gordon argued domestic livestock could actually support the process, in a recent study published in the international Sustainability journal.

Professor Iain Gordon at a recent Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership event in Gladstone.
Professor Iain Gordon at a recent Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership event in Gladstone.

The renowned zoologist, who is based in Townsville, has worked across Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and Australia.

He explained ‘Rewilding Lite’ was a less extreme version of the popular movement which included ‘wildlife-friendly farming’, meaning domestic grazers gradually allowed environmental conditions to become wilder while still producing cattle.

While cattle ranching in Australia has been associated with reduction in the habitat of native species, Prof Gordon also argues grazing pressure from cattle could also reduce the build-up of biomass that led to the destructive fires killing untold numbers of Australian wildlife last summer.

“We’ve lost many of the native species of large herbivores, such as the giant short-faced kangaroo and the giant wombat in the past 50,000 years. Cattle could replace the function that they performed if we manage them effectively,” Prof Gordon said.

“Rewilding Lite does allow for some productive offtake, and, therefore, could be an alternative form of land management for agricultural land – opening up a much larger area of the earth’s surface for potential rewilding activities.”

In Australia, Prof Gordon said rewilding would create habitats for small mammals, lizards and skinks that allowed them to escape from feral predators such as cats and foxes, while reducing risk of fire ripping through the system leaving whole communities of native fauna vulnerable to a range of perils.

Rewilding is a popular ecology movement in Europe, the United States and South America, where species reintroduced to restored ecosystems have included predators such as wolves and coyotes, and even jaguars.

There are also discussions in North America about replacing extinct mammoths and ground sloths with Africa elephants and rhinos.

Prof Gordon said herbivores were an essential part of the process, and domestic cattle could take the place of long-extinct herbivore mammals in the ecosystem.

“In complex ecosystems, the individual decisions by animal foragers, at small scales, determine the individual plants and the parts of plants that grow and thrive,” he said.

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“As well as impacting food sources, large herbivores, including cattle, have indirect effects on ecosystems through trampling, rolling, digging, defecation and urination – so large mammalian herbivores are essential in any rewilding project.”

Prof Gordon said as the global population grew to 11 billion in the next 30 years, and demand for meat grew, ecosystems would face increased stress as grazing activity increased.

“This stress actually reduces the opportunities for ‘Rewilding Max’, or zero-intervention ecosystem restoration, to succeed,” he said.

While he admitted some rewilding advocates see cattle as detracting from the “wildness” of an ecosystem, Prof Gordon insisted domestic livestock, particularly locally adapted breeds were well adapted to provide herbivory within the ecosystem.

“Due to their importance for food production and draught, we know so much about livestock animals, including physiology, behaviour, genetics, and husbandry, and diets and habitat use of livestock is also relatively well understood, as compared to wild species of herbivores,” he said.

“This means we can manage them effectively to meet a range of conservation objectives.”

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